Betsy Kiunisala-Medalla has always been a swimmer. By 12 years old, she was already in the Philippine national youth team. Several international competitions and local swim records later, she retired from the national competitive swimming scene, and enrolled at the University of the Philippines with the ambition of becoming a doctor after she earned her degree in BS Psychology. Betsy kept swimming, and when she was team captain of the UP Varsity Swim Team, they won their first UAAP trophy in almost a decade.
After graduating, Betsy didn’t go to med school. For the next decade, she would lead marketing communications and brand management for casual and sports apparel, and alcoholic beverages. She described this period of her life as unhealthy. To jumpstart her road to fitness, Betsy and her husband, John, started mountain biking. A friend suggested that she try triathlon. On her first tri, she placed second in her age group, and triathlon turned into a “lifestyle choice.”
But Betsy has always been – and perhaps will always be – a swimmer. She founded Swimjunkie Challenges, a series of open water swim races; co-manages their triathlon team; coaches two masters swim groups; and does swim analyses by appointment.
Now, she is better known as Coach Betsy to her swimmies, and/or Swimjunkie to her fans and followers.
Tell us about what led you to do your work, and what you do.
Amazed by the swim techniques and forms in the triathlon community, I put up a blog called Just Add Water: Open Water and Triathlon Swim Tips, to feature triathletes’ swim-style idiosyncrasies and help late starting swimmers swim better. It put me on the radar of Buddy Cunanan, who needed a swimmer to do the first crossing from Robben Island to Bloubergstrand in South Africa. I accepted the invitation, trained, and successfully made the crossing.
Before going to South Africa, I was cold-water training at the Baguio Athletic Bowl swimming pool. We were speaking with a lady who would give us pool access. I was semi-whining about the lack of a master’s swim program, and she interrupted and said, “Then make it.”
Those words stuck with me all throughout Baguio training, and in South Africa. I loved the experience of the Robben Island crossing so much that I decided that it was meant to be shared, and that we could replicate the feeling in the Philippines.
When I got home, I made a few calls and set up my first ocular of a potential open water swim race site. I created the Swimjunkie Challenges, Philippine open water swims in locations that can rival the best in the world.
The anchor of it all is of course daily life with John and our sons, Naui and Najee.
Photo from Yvonne Kiunsisala
What’s the best and worst parts about your job?
Open water swimmers can only swim in clean and safe seas, so the cause takes on a new life with them. Every new participant is potentially a new clean and safe seas ambassador.
Our biggest hurdle is finding funding for the events. Operationally, keeping 50 swimmers safe in the open water costs almost as much as keeping 500 safe. We get by, fueled by the changes we see in the sport and the growing community of swimmers. When we started, there were just three open water races with no more than 100 participants. Now, there are 12 races a year, care of six different race organizers. Swimjunkie Challenge VIP LOBO had 250 racers this year, and Swimjunkie Challenge CARAMOAN reached 310. In the meantime, we continue to work on improving the race experience, and building the image of Philippine open water swimming.
What three pointers would you provide for people who'd like to start pursuing an environmental lifestyle?
In the sea, all your senses are activated. I don’t wear a mask, so whether I like it or not, I can taste the water. I have been assaulted by boat fumes, and the odors of poorly planned drainage. I’ve swum in water with discarded objects so bizarre, there are no words.
An environmental lifestyle comes down to the tiniest of everyday decisions.
The way you drink out of the house. Refuse plastic straws, support businesses that no longer use plastic straws and/or covers. Start a re-usable bottle habit.
The way you shop. Bring re-usable bags, if you buy small items refuse the shopping bag/wrapping and stick it in your bag (I still need to work on that). I used to carry plastic bags for post-workout clothes and dirty shoes, but now I have re-usable bags clipped into my swim/triathlon bag.
Think about where items go when you no longer need them. On one particular swim in Matabungkay, I saw three laundry baskets on the sandy floor. They were the ugliest things in the water, like marine tumbleweeds because they were so light.
Share with us a fun fact about the environment that you think people should know.
Dungaree Beach in Subic was once a public beach and a frequent triathlon swim host. It was practically a dead zone of sandy bed, sea grass, and the occasional box jellyfish. It was then closed to the public for almost a year for the construction of a high-end hotel complex. Left untouched for the most part, a triathlon was given permission to use the area again. I was surprised to see a few fish and seaweed not too far from the shore.
The fun fact is that nature can recover in some fashion, we just need to know how to give it room.
What is your why - why you do what you do?
I do what I do because I was given a talent in swimming, a desire to share what I know about swimming, and the skills to organize and market open water swim events. All of that coming together is hard to ignore. The only thing missing is a Batman slap meme and the caption, “This is what you’re meant to be doing!”
Photo from Betsy Medalla
What can people do to help your cause?
We need more people to fall in love with the sea and the sport. Please train for and join open water swim events in the country! As the residents of an archipelago, this sport is a natural fit for us. The start-up costs of open water swimming are minimal: a swim cap, goggles, a safety tow buoy, and a suit, and you’re on your way.
If you have already joined an open water swim or two, please talk about it. Share the experience, inspire a friend, go for a swim.
Train and sign up for the 2018 Swimjunkie Challenge open water races: May in Lobo, Batangas; June in El Nido, Palawan; and August in Caramoan, Camarines Sur. Swim with Betsy at @swimjunkieph on Twitter, Swimjunkie on Facebook, and the Just Add Water blog.
Photo from Swimjunkie Challenge