Friends remember how, four years ago, Karyn Cecilia “Chibby” Velez abruptly bid goodbye to them to leave for an elite badminton camp overseas.
Chibby, then the No. 1 women’s badminton player in the Philippines, had received an invitation from the Kuala Lumpur Racket Club in the middle of her freshman year at the Ateneo where she was expected to carry the school’s shuttlers to new heights in the varsity league.
“She just said, ‘I’m leaving for Malaysia next week,’ recalls Carla Lizardo, Chibby’s childhood friend and Ateneo teammate. “And I asked, ‘Forever?’”
The badminton whiz had no hesitation; she really wanted to go, Lizardo remembers. “I wasn’t even able to prepare emotionally for it,” she adds.
One fateful day in August this year, Lizardo and her friends were as surprised at another abrupt leave-taking from Velez. This time, there were no farewells at all. In fact, nothing could have prepared them for it.
They had trooped to the Mall of Asia Arena with Velez to cheer at the Gilas Pilipinas basketball team’s title game versus Iran in the Fiba Asia Championship. “We’re going on an adventure!” Lizardo recalls exclaiming.
Hours later, that August 11 adventure ended on a sour note, with the Philippines settling for a silver that nonetheless shone like gold for many hoop-crazy Pinoy fans. The two friends were among the happy faces who went home. Velez took the wheel and dropped her friend home.
But Velez would never make it home.
“I was calling her at 12:30 a.m. to ask what time she’ll go home but she didn’t answer,” recounts Velez’s youngest sister, Kian. It was unusual, she adds, recalling how they would burn the lines even when her older sibling was training or competing in another country.
“I could always call her,” says Kian. “She’d always call back if she missed my call and we’d be on the phone for hours.”
Some 15 minutes after her call, the phone rang, says the younger Velez who was expecting her sister’s return call. But it was a hospital staffer on the other line. Her sister was gone, Kian was told.
Karyn Velez, 23, became a casualty of a vehicular accident along C5 road in Pasig City, presumably on her way home from the FIBA game.
According to traffic investigators, criminal charges had been filed against the driver of the closed-door van that hit the rear of the Honda Civic being driven by the Fil-Am badminton sensation and former varsity player of Ateneo.
The accident happened around 12 midnight and left Velez with severe body injuries. She was rushed to Medical City, where she was pronounced dead about two hours later.
“She was always larger than life,” says Lisa Encarnacion, recalling how, even as an 8-year-old, Velez had stood out among the other aspiring athletes at the Valle Verde Country Club.
Encarnacion quickly spotted the girl with a stroke and strut beyond her years.
“There were already stories that she started (playing badminton) when she was 6, na may palo talaga yan (that she can really hit well),” Encarnacion recalls.
Lizardo adds: “When I played against her, I scored one point, and she said, ‘Congrats, you’re the only one who scored a point against me.’ But she wasn’t gloating. We weren’t close then and I was like, ‘Wow, she acknowledged me!’ That was how (this celebrity) made us feel.”
The Velez couple—Jofer Velez and Tiza Alcid—had strongly encouraged their three daughters to pick up a sport, though it was the eldest who stood out on the taraflex floor.
“We all tried badminton, but Chibby would always beat me so I stopped,” the younger Velez says. “She was too good, so Kitty became a swimmer and I turned into a football player.”
“Definitely we’ve always known she’ll go far in the sport. She was always really good,” Lizardo confirms.
“She was naturally gifted and blessed,” Encarnacion adds.
But that athletic gift didn’t come naturally, says Toby Gadi, another one of Velez’s long-time friends and currently the No. 1 men’s badminton player in the Philippines.
Gadi trained with Velez at a very young age at the renowned Asuncion Badminton Center, where he saw how a determined young girl would pour all her energy on learning the sport.
“Our coach said it took Velez one year before she could hit well,” says Gadi in Filipino. “So, for me, she was more gifted when it comes to her desire to excel in the game. She improved the different aspects of her game, got faster and stronger, because of that desire.”
Velez’s unquestionable determination at an early age propelled her to the top when, at 15, she became the youngest member of the Philippine badminton team in the 2005 Southeast Asian Games.
The following year, she also emerged as the youngest Open Ladies Singles Champion before becoming the first Filipino to reign in the Badminton World Federation-sanctioned open ladies singles in the 2009 Mexico International Cup.
Velez strung up seven international crowns in the open ladies’ singles, open mixed doubles and junior singles on top of other local and regional accolades.
“When we would ask (Chibby) how she played [in an international tournament], she’d just say, ‘I played well,’” says Lizardo. “She was so modest. [When she passed away], I saw a write-up on all her achievements in badminton and I was floored. I never knew. She never bragged about winning the Mexico Open, for one.”
But it wasn’t just Velez’s badminton skills that made the 5’8” stunner a standout on the court; she also set hearts a-flutter with her looks.
“Siya yung sobrang crush ng bayan. Obviously, sobrang ganda niya at sobrang outgoing. (She was a total heartthrob, very pretty and outgoing),” says Lizardo.
“Almost everyone mentioned her smile, how she lights up the room and how she was such a happy person who was really enjoying her life,” says Velez’s younger sister, Kian.
“She’d always get what she wanted with that smile,” agrees Jobett Co, a badminton player and former boyfriend whom Lizardo and Encarnacion described was Chibby’s “first love.”
“I really like everything about her,” adds Co. “She was always feeling positive. She’d be happy about things and she’d also help you be as happy. That’s why I felt so close to her.”
Apparently, a lot of other friends felt the same way about Velez. During her wake, some of the foreign friends she had met through her sport flew to Manila, while many more sent video messages from Australia, Canada, Jamaica, France, Switzerland, Peru, Belgium, Scotland, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, United States and Maldives.
“We’ve only just found out that her reach extended everywhere,” says Encarnacion.
“We thought we were her best friends; as it turns out, she had a lot of best friends all over the world,” Lizardo says with a laugh. “At least the whole world got to experience (her happy disposition) before she left us. At least she got to do what she wanted to.”
“Her personality was just magnetic,” Encarnacion adds. “She can make you feel like you could be best friends. She could easily tell people, ‘I like what you’re wearing, you’re so pretty or I like your smile.’ She knew how to appreciate people”
Her openness and friendly demeanor notwithstanding, Velez also had a competitive streak, her friends and family attest.
“She hated losing,” says her sister Kian.
“Super pikon (a sore loser),” Gadi recalls with a laugh, adding that Velez was obsessed with winning—from simple games like jackstones to beer pong in parties. “When somebody played better than she did, she’d ask that person to play the game over and over until she wins,” he adds.
But it is clearly that relentless drive to excel that also pushed Velez to keep challenging herself, allowing no odds nor obstacles to hold her back
A case in point was when Velez left for Malaysia for further training. Not only did she want to boost her playing skills, but friends say she also wanted to leave a national sports association that she had described in a 2011 online magazine interview as having “too much politics.”
Born in Philadelphia, Velez later opted to represent the United States on the international badminton circuit.
“As an athlete, she was very determined. Before she died, she already had plans to qualify for the Olympics. For some, just to make it to the Olympics would be enough, but this girl really wanted to win,” says Co.
And it is that lost future, the opportunities gone forever that Velez’s friends and family mourn most.
“We had planned to watch her in the 2016 Olympics,” says Lizardo. “I had also looked forward to having her as my bridesmaid and later, seeing her kids,” she adds. “But I don’t want to think of it that way. I’m just grateful to have had her as a friend, to have grown up with her, to have shared many experiences with her. And what she did in those 23 years, most people can’t do that. She traveled the world, she had an exciting life, she touched so many lives.”
For Velez’ younger sister Kian, losing her meant learning to go it alone, now that their parents, feeling dispirited and crushed, have chosen to return to the United States.
“When Chibby was 15, she really matured and became a big sister to us. We started getting close. For the past four years, she was really my best friend,” says Kian. “Though it’s hard to accept that she’s now gone, we know that she had lived a full life and that she’s now in a better place.”
“I’m pretty sure she had no regrets. She was happy,” adds Co.