Jia Kawachi’s great leap

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Jia Kawachi’s great leap
Kawachi celebrates her gold medal performance. —PHOTOS BY LUIS ANTONIO LICAS
Jia Kawachi’s great leap
Kawachi celebrates her gold medal performance. —PHOTOS BY LUIS ANTONIO LICAS

In the multiple collegiate sports programs under the Ateneo de Manila University, generational talents seem to come and go with every passing year. However, in the case of the Ateneo Track and Field Team (ATF), a once-in-a-lifetime talent such as Jia Kawachi might truly be a once-in-a-generation athlete.

The pole vaulter, 25, recently shattered the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) women’s pole vault record with a stellar 3.61-meter jump, cleanly breaking the then 15-year record set by Far Eastern University Lady Tamaraw and former ATF coach Riezel Buenaventura of 3.40 meters.

Despite the ease in which Kawachi seemed to have in breaking the decade-standing UAAP record, the Filipina Japanese vaulter’s journey in athletics has been anything but easy.

Currently in her ninth year at Ateneo, taking up masters of science in sustainability management, she says that track and field only came to her by chance. She started doing gymnastics at the age of 3 and continued with it until high school.

Inspired by ‘lolo’

But upon starting college in Ateneo, she was fixated on picking up a sport in order to continue her journey as a student-athlete, initially trying out for the cheer dance and volleyball, but to no avail.

It was then that her grandfather inspired her to try out for track and field. She said, “My lolo was the one who introduced me to track and field because he used to do track back in his college years.”

She added, “I didn’t have any experience with track and field. It was very hard at first to transition. But once I tried out here, that year, our women’s coach was a pole vaulter.”

This coach was then-record holder Buenaventura, who immediately took her in after being informed of Kawachi’s gymnast background. All thanks to these unlikely circumstances, a star was born.

With Buenaventura’s trust, the veteran tactician gave a rare green light for the rookie to compete in UAAP Season 79, a privilege that very few Atenean track and field athletes get to enjoy. Kawachi dealt with rookie jitters but the decision to field her this early on set in motion the trajectory of the young athlete’s career moving forward.

However, this transition from rookie to the phenom we know of today started prior to her junior year in UAAP Season 81. She flipped the switch after multiple near-podium finishes, which she recalls brought her to tears. This setback led to a change in her attitude.

“It takes a lot of time, effort, dedication, discipline to get to where you want to be. And that’s what I did in my junior year and I was grateful that all my sacrifices turned into that gold medal standing.”

This gold medal performance would be her 3.20-meter leap in Season 81, only 0.20 meters shy of tying with Buenaventura’s UAAP record. With this momentum, the sky was the limit for Kawachi entering her senior year for the Blue and White.

She had her sights set on not just getting gold again, but also breaking Buenaventura’s record, but then, the UAAP Season 82 athletics championships were cancelled because of the pandemic.

“That was really tough,” she said.

Jia Kawachi’s great leap
Jia Kawachi with her gold medal

Breaking the record

Following her graduation also during the pandemic, the veteran pole vaulter was at a crossroads. Then-ATF program director Mick Perez offered Kawachi something that she had never received in her tenure as a student-athlete: a scholarship.

With the chance to don her blue-and-whites once again, now as a full-ride scholar, Kawachi took a final leap of faith to come back to the Blue Eagles in Season 85, the first season of athletics’ return to the UAAP. In what would turn out to be one of the toughest years for the ATF, the Blue Eagles concluded the season without a single gold medal. Kawachi finished in second place as the squad’s only medalist, clearing a height of 3.10 meters, significantly shorter than her prepandemic output. Multiple changes to the ATF would be evident following their lackluster season, including a change in management.

After her podium finish in the 2023 Philippine Athletics Championships, all eyes were on Kawachi to not just complete her greatest feat yet, but to bring home a historic first that the squad had not seen in years.

Opting to attempt 3.20 meters as her first jump in UAAP Season 86, she not just tied with her former mentor’s record, but also claimed gold in her opening jump alone.

With the Blue gallery in attendance at the PhilSports Athletics Stadium up on their feet, she succeeded in toppling the decade-standing record by clearing a height of 3.41 meters in her second jump.

Completing her all-time best performance for Ateneo, Kawachi solidified her place among the greats by leaping to 3.61 meters in her final attempt, shattering the record once again, and claiming the Blue Eagles’ first gold medal in years with dominance.

“From my journey as a freshman in 2016, I’ve [come] a long way since It’s been a rough journey, but here we are. My hard work has finally paid off,” she said.

Leaving the hallowed halls of the Katipunan campus for the final time later this year, Kawachi hopes that the legacy she has left behind will serve as the catalyst for the Blue Eagles to build on and hopefully return to the podium in the near future. —CONTRIBUTED

The author is an AB Communication sophomore at Ateneo and a student- athlete who writes for The Guidon and Tiebreaker Times.

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