Sports

‘To have world-class athletes, take politics out of PH sports’ – Uytengsu Jr.

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LOS ANGELES, California -- Before Wilfred Uytengsu, Jr., president and CEO of Alaska Milk, became a competitive tri-athlete, he was a swimmer. In fact, he was the captain of the University of Southern California swim team.

 

Uytengsu recently returned to his alma mater to inaugurate the renovated swimming facility named after him, the Uytengsu Aquatics Center, thanks to his $8 million donation, the biggest gift to USC by a student-athlete and a Filipino.

Uytengsu sat for an interview with INQUIRER.net to talk about his passion for swimming, lessons he learned from his late father, and his thoughts on the state of Philippine sports.

How was your experience being one of the few minorities on the USC swim team?

There was a Japanese American swimmer whose name is Scott Matsuda and there was Ben Lau who is Chinese American. There were three of us there during my time I never really looked at whether I was Asian or Asian American, that just didn’t really enter into the equation.  It was whether you were willing to put in the work as an athlete.

What must be done to have more world-class athletes from the Philippines?

This going to be a little bit controversial, but I think we need to take the politics out of the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), the Sports Commission and I the Philippine Amateur Swimming Association, of which I was briefly the president shortly after I returned to the Philippines.

The parents approached me and said there are all kinds of problems in the swimming program — a lot of favoritism going on. I was a victim (of favoritism) too. When I came back to swim in the 1981 Southeast Asian Games, the coach took me out of my major events because his swimmer was swimming the same events. I said, “Well, let’s race right now. The fastest swimmer swims.” And he said, “No, it’s too late to do that.” I said it’s going to take less than a minute.

In a sport like swimming or track and field, anything that’s with a stopwatch, it’s pretty simple who should be on your national team, the fastest athletes. Now you could argue in figure skating or gymnastics, it’s a subjective sport. It’s a little bit hard to do. But when it’s time-based, it should be your fastest athletes.

Granted, we had the good fortune of having the likes of the Concepcion Brothers, Eric Buhain, Akiko Thomson, and a few others, all of whom were training in the United States. You have to ask yourself again, “Why are our best swimmers training abroad?” Again, I think it’s the politics. And so, the heads of all the national sports associations, whether it’s swimming, football, or basketball, I think they need to put the athletes’ concerns first, make sure they have the right coaching, the right nutrition.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening and that’s why we see the Philippines less competitive today than we were 40 years ago. Now, I think there are a few people in sports who are trying to make a difference, but I don’t think they’re in the majority.

Describe the work that you are doing with the Alaska Youth Development Program. 

We have a professional basketball team that has achieved some success given us some pedigree to run basketball camps. We have the franchise to sponsor both Junior NBA, and this year we launched Junior WNBA. We’re partnering with arguably the best name in basketball globally, the National Basketball Association, and with its coaches. We take the top 10 players of the boys to play a tournament. Last year, they got to go to Staples Center, and Kobe Bryant came out on to the court. We’re also going to pick five girls to do that and one coach because we realized it’s important that the coaches have the fundamentals.

The second initiative is in football. Long before the Azkals became popular, we’ve long supported soccer in the Philippines, and we’ve run soccer camps through the summer. We run the single largest tournament in the country called the Alaska Cup. We’ve been doing that for 16 years, and 3,500 kids in a weekend, as young as five years old, from the clubs at school and organizations participate.

We have added to that a small batch of aspirational tri-athletes; we have six children who we think have the potential to become tri-athletes. We sponsor them in what we call Alaska Tri-aspire and we’d like to see them (this is separate from the Triathlon Association of the Philippines) become the best tri-athletes they can be and perhaps represent the Philippine one day at the Asian games, and who knows, maybe one day, the Olympics.

How did your father, Wilfred Uytengsu, Sr., influence your philanthropic work?

My father had become more philanthropically inclined in the last 10 years of his life. He decided that he wanted to give back to one of his universities. He was at Stanford and he got his second engineering degree at Indiana Tech. He transformed the latter’s alumni house, an old antebellum building into a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified green building. My father being an engineer was really intrigued about the environmental engineering challenges for that, so he said, “Sure. Let’s go ahead and do it.”

I remember the stories that I would hear about him, talking about it almost like a teenager in the enthusiasm of my father. The sad part is, my father passed away two months before the building was completed. So I went to Indiana Tech and I kind of had to give the speech that he would have given for that.

It was really unfortunate that he didn’t get the chance to see what he wanted to share. I talked to my wife whom I met at USC and I said, “We should not wait ‘til we’re not around to give back because I think the joy, the pleasure of seeing people receive what it is we give and whatever that maybe, I think it’s coming back ten-fold to us. Why wait ‘til you’re six feet under when you can afford to do so?”

Why did you decide to donate $8 million dollars to the USC Aquatics department?

The USC swim program is one of the best in the nation. I wasn’t recruited to swim at a major program. I had a chance to swim at smaller ones. But when I was invited by a family friend to look at USC and I saw the Olympians, I said to myself, “I would much rather be a smaller fish in a big pond and have the opportunity to compete and participate at the highest level possible.”

I was in a car accident in my senior year. I broke my leg and they said that I probably wasn’t going to swim again. And so, I showed up on campus in a cast and had to start my first six to eight weeks swimming with a cast, which was kind of crazy.

 

The challenges and opportunities I had at USC had a big impact on my life, personally and professionally. I knew at some point in time that I would like to be able to give back to the university. Inquirer.net.

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