Sporting an I’ll-be-back Terminator haircut, Gissell came to the house of my wife – I’m just a boarder here – loaded with two huge gold medals and one shining silver, in response to my request for a photo session.
Ten years ago when we first saw her, Gissell already had the distinction of being taller that most girls of her age. She is the daughter of Joy, a Filipina and the late Albert Schwandner, a German mechanic. Albert and I became friends because of CB radio, at a time when Cagayan de Oro and Misamis Oriental were still blessed with a primitive telephone system.
Gissell worked with us briefly in our Nazca Graphic Design & Photography in what they called Vietnam Area in Cogon. We were amused when we discovered she could hardly cut a straight line, but I suspected, after being introduced to the multiple intelligences theory, that she was destined to excel in mechanical and repetitive tasks.
Indeed, today she is a muscular athlete, a member of the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation, the team that brought gold in all categories from Nanning, China in June this year. The other Cagayan de Oro member is Sarah Jane Sanchez.
Gissell is also a reserved staff of the Philippine Coast Guard. Part of her routine is a workout that requires the lifting of 90 kilos of weights, and paddling with her comrades in Manila Bay. At first glance, people would suspect she’s a Caucasian male, with her angular cheekbones, broad shoulders, and the grip of the governor of California.
Who would imagine that she was born two months premature in a rugged house in Carmen? Her parents brought her to a hospital, but her father was angry when they put syringes on the veins of her head. After signing a waiver, Albert put his frail daughter inside a 12-inch TV carton, and brought her back home. Inside the box he placed a 50-watt incandescent bulb, transforming the cramp container, as Albert would describe it, “like a chicken incubator”.
Gissell grew up on a hill house with five siblings. Her mother recalls her frequent climbs to a tree, from where she would drop directly from the branches to the ground, like a monkey. While other children walked to West Central School, Gissell would run. In grade four, she won first in the 400-meter dash in the provincial inter-school athletics. On the way to the finish line, a sole of one of her old pair of shoes gave way and flapped repeatedly. She often recalls this incident with a giggle.
The next year in the intramurals, she skipped breakfast and ran straight to the school to join the race. A few seconds after speeding off, her vision disintegrated. She blacked out and collapsed after hitting the finish line, but won first place anyway. The worried principal, after knowing that she was a premature baby, prohibited her from further joining in sports.
But this didn’t stop Gissell at all. At the Misamis Oriental General Comprehensive High School in 2006, where she excelled in athletics, Cromwell Nuñal asked her to join the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation, after observing her in the Pelaez Sports Center. Nuñal is a member of the national team of Sepak Takraw.
Today, Gissell looks forward to joining another world dragon boat competition in October in Prague, the Czech Republic. We hope she, Sarah Jane and the rest of her colleagues will be present.
Recent reports indicate a lack of funding for our dragon boat athletes. This issue should be resolved. One thing inspiring about the Philippine Dragon Boat Federation is the cultural variety of its members. It has people from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao, connected to one another by tradition of boating. Some of the athletes and coaches are Muslims. So, what better team to represent the country? Pacquiao is a hero, but he is one. But in the dragon boat are people from different families and upbringing -- united, synchronized and focused.
Staff of Nazca Designs and Kindelen Enterprises after our wedding on Obsidian Hill. Second from left is Gissell Schwandner.