When one thinks of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), images from the US show American Ninja Warrior (where some obstacle challenges are actually based on) usually come to mind. These obstacles are designed to test an individual’s overall strength, both physically and mentally. The first appearance of OCR in the 2019 SEA Games was bound to be a historic one, but the Philippine National OCR team did the country proud by exceeding even their own expectations. The team home multiple awards, including four gold medals and broke four world records in the process.
Leading the pack among the eight women in her team is 27-year-old Rochelle Suarez, who set a new world record of 46.70 seconds in the women’s 100 meter category. “Grabe yung naging preparation namin. Almost one year in the making. In the team, since we come from different backgrounds, so we really helped each other. Iba iba kami ng forte, may mga runners sa amin, may mga climbers, so we shared whatever our strengths are to the team, kung ano yung pwede pa namin i-improve para mag-improve yung team namin sa SEA Games,” she admits.
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More than Rochelle's strong showing for the country in OCR, what’s even more surprising is her unexpected entry into the sport. “I started one year ago. But prior to OCR I did climbing for four years. Then last year I was invited to participate in an obstacle course. Apparently, my friend who invited me was the one who started obstacle course racing in the Philippines, si Noel Agra. We just met while doing a shoot together because we had the same brand sponsor. He invited me to a competition and apparently that was already a qualifier for the national training pool,” she recalls.
Rochelle admits she was initially in it to experience new things, only to perform exceptionally well, placing in the top three during the qualifiers in December 2018. “Para akong masusuka after! Naubos ata yung hangin ko! Hindi ako nakahinga kasi kailangan mo tumakbo, kailangan mo sumabit. Bawal ka talagang mag-stop kasi every millisecond counts. After the race, naisip ko try ko lang, laro laro lang, wala kasi akong idea how to train for it. I started my journey with obstacle course training there. I found the sport challenging in a way na parang hindi siya ganun ka nakakapagod gawin at first, you’re just doing it for fun. What made me stick to it was the fun in climbing. Parang you don’t feel like you’re working out, you just feel like you’re hanging out with your friends,” she says.
Watching her breeze through the obstacle course like it’s child’s play, Rochelle admits she had never actually been part of any varsity team before. This self-confessed former weekend warrior admits her favorite hobby was trying out different sports until she discovered climbing—which ended up being her first real sport four years ago. “Climbing started as a weekend hobby for me. Yung OCR sobrang different siya sa climbing kasi pag umaakyat ka ng climbing hindi ka naman nagmamadali, parang chill lang yung pace niya so medyo maingat ka sa mga movement mo kasi hindi ka pwede malaglag. Sa obstacle course, sobrang taas ng adrenaline rush niya na kailangan mabilis, kailangan accurate lahat ng galaw mo. And everything is fast-paced kumbaga. Other than that, sobrang kailangan mo ng endurance, kailangan talaga may hangin ka kasi nung first time ko na nag-race, para akong magsusuka,” she says.
Even though she never expected to be a national athlete, Rochelle says that in the bigger picture, OCR helped her in her journey to self-discovery. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would become an athlete. Hindi talaga ako sporty. I’d try different sports but I was never dedicated. Maybe it was just my sense of being adventure that led me to eventually find my passion in climbing. And I realized I wanted to do it even if I had to everyday. Before that, all I did was try. But when I found what I wanted to do, everything else just followed naturally. I found climbing then I found OCR. It’s like the things I enjoy doing are branching out so it’s really good because I’m also getting to know more about myself,” she says.
A real estate broker by day, Rochelle admits that the national team’s training schedule became so rigorous that she had to make life-changing sacrifices in order to prepare for the SEA Games. This included six days a week trainings with different coaches guiding her for running, weight training, and obstacle course racing. “I had to quit my job and then I seldom saw my family because I went to training everyday. I live in Marikina but I was mostly at the obstacle gym sa BGC all day because we have morning and afternoon trainings. So ang hirap kasi nawalan ako ng time for my family. Kasi parang nasobrahan yung focus ko sa sports, so 'yun yung naging hurdle sa akin,” she says. The unspoken competition within the team is also always at the back of her mind. “Kasi yung mga kasama sa team or the local competitions, they also came from different backgrounds. Some are climbers, some are gymnasts, meron din runners so the level of competition is always high,” she adds.
As with other athletes who want to do their best, Rochelle also had to overcome the pressure and self-doubt that came with being ranked one of the country’s top OCR players. “It was the pressure I put on myself, like this was my first SEA games so I really wanted na talagang makapagdala ng medalya para sa bansa natin. It was really challenging mentally din kasi sometimes masyado kang na-pe-pressure, may tendency to burn out din. But I was happy to continuously be able to perform at my best but even if I feel I’m not. I think I could accept that as long as I still did my best. As long as I can motivate other people, it’s already a big thing for me. Nakakatuwa rin yung ibang girls na kinakausap ka or nag-me-message na nakaka-inspire daw. So malaking bagay na 'yun sa akin. It keeps me going,” she says.
Even her sport requiring utmost precision and speed to win, Rochelle admits she does not consider herself a perfectionist. “I would say I’m more competitive than a perfectionist. I believe in continuous improvement so as much as possible I always try to improve myself."
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When she’s not hanging out at the gym, Rochelle likes to think she's just a regular gal lounging on Netflix—yes, preferably with a tub of barbeque flavored fries and milk tea! “Ang lakas ko kumain. Kasi kailangan ko kumain. I learned it the hard way kasi before nag-diet ako, hindi ako nagkakanin, high protein, ganyan. Pero hindi pala tama 'yun kasi you won’t recover enough, you’re not giving your body enough fuel to support your activities. So after nun, hindi na ako naging strict sa diet. Kumakain talaga ako even for SEA Games,” she says.
To those interested in getting into OCR, Rochelle says commitment to the sport is key in doing well. “Whatever sport you get into, first research about the sport, kung ano yung nature nung sport. Kasi nung pumasok ako talagang feeling ko nasa malaking playground lang ako—laro laro lang siya eh. Then you have to build more endurance. Running is also very important in obstacle course racing. Build your endurance through running and work on your upper body because that’s also a very important factor,” she advises.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Rochelle’s tournament lineup formally begins in April with the Asian Championships in Indonesia before bringing her to another championship in Las Vegas until she reaches the Ninja World Championships in Russia by September as well as some local competitions happening in between. With her achievement last December, Rochelle hopes to bring a renewed confidence to her game as she faces athletes from different races and up her ranking after placing seventh overall in her first international OCR last year. This Obstacle Relay Course athlete maintains that her love of the sport will always be the main drive for her to win.
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On Rochelle: Top, adidas; shorts and jacket, both AllStar at SM
Produced by Camille Santiago | Photography by Vyn Radovan | Grooming by Muriel Vega Perez and Team MVP | Hair by Francis Guintu of Aveda Philippines | Styling by Aldrin Ramos. Acknowledgements WeWork Philippines, Aveda, and Teriyaki Boy | Shot on location at WeWork Philippines, Menarco Tower, BGC