Poks Esquivel: Philippine Surfing's One-legged Wonder
Poks Esquivel : photo Tim Hain
Surf Camp News
Poks Esquivel: Philippine Surfing's One-legged Wonder
Surfersvillage Global Surf News, 15 February, 2009 : - - -- Dawn Patrol. That’s the title and distinction bestowed upon surfers who take to the waves before daylight. It's part compliment in that it hints of resolve and commitment; no passion is too early for the pursuing. Then too, it's part backhanded compliment in that it whispers of old age and insanity; only geriatrics or complete nutters get up even when the sun, itself, has the good sense not to.
Today, in particular, this sleepy oceanic crew, who have courageously fought the leaden eyelids of the sleep-deprived, the remorseful 20/20 hindsight of the hopelessly beer-goggled, and the unforgiving cranial poundings of one-tequila-too-many reap the largesse that only a November Pacific swell can bring: glassy surf, head-high, long rides, and only 4 surfers in the line-up. Christmas has come early for the dawn patrol.
It’s a 5:30am wake-up call for the early risers at the Mona Lisa pointbreak, and a formidable swell has blasted across the Pacific Ocean overnight. Traveling in an east to west direction, the waves slingshot counter-clockwise around northern Luzon squeezing through the vise-like grip of the Taiwan Straits. The swell, then, charges ferociously into the South China Sea, ultimately crashing full-throttle onto a jagged reef a mere 100 metres from the La Union coastline.
The first surfer of the dawn patrol catches the peak of the oncoming wave -- it’s a liquid monster, 8-feet on the face -- and plummets down with unquestioned commitment. He whips a solid bottom turn, effortlessly tucks himself inside the barreling wave -- the Holy Grail of surfing knighthood -- and is spat out like a conscienceless bullet from a semi-automatic.
Exiting the liquid cavern, the surfer relentlessly accelerates before shifting course with a massive roundhouse cutback that draws a spectacular figure 8 on the water. Unsatisfied with that impressive manoeuvre, he continues his assault down the line and launches into an aerial -- surfboard and surfer momentarily suspended in mid-air -- before landing intact as the wave hammers down onto shallow coral thunderously. It is Poseidon’s applause of approval…and admiration.
That entire display would have been rather banal work for the immensely talented pool of today’s surf tribe had it not been for the fact that the surfer on that crisp morning was born with fused fingers, under-developed toes, and only one leg. His name is Ronie Esquivel, lovingly if mischievously given the delightful sobriquet "Poks."
On August 9, 1984, Poks Esquivel came into being in an impoverished seaside town of fishermen and rolling surf that is charming only for the literary image which it evokes and not for the harsh reality with which it punishes. "Life has always been a bit hard for us, and it was very difficult especially during the time my mother was pregnant with me," says Poks,
"so it wasn’t a very good time for everybody. It wasn't even a good idea to have me." Poks narrates the circumstances of his birth almost matter-of-factly and with a commendable lack of self-pity, his inflections shorn of melodramatics. This quiet if assured approach is reflective of his surfing as well.
"Somehow, I made it through," Poks continues, "even if everything went against me, and even if it wasn’t a good idea to be born and with so little at that. I guess I was already hard-headed even before I was born cause I made it. I just came out with a few parts missing," he quips. Besides cutbacks and aerials, devilish charm coupled with a healthy and irreverent sense of humour are part of Poks’ arsenal as well.
"My life went on just like everybody else's." says Poks. "I hated school much like most kids, I didn't attend class but hopefully NOT like most kids, and I like chocolates, the occasional San Miguel, and pretty girls," he sheepishly grins. "People always ask me if my life is any different because of my disability, but I wouldn't really know.
I was born this way and wouldn't know what to do if given another leg," Poks shrugs. "Although come to think of it, there's a couple of people I wanna give a swift kick up the you-know-where, so yeah, another leg could come in handy," Poks heartily laughs.
What would have been just another underprivileged existence in a forgotten rural town attained new meaning and direction when Poks was introduced to surfing. "A few foreigners came here to surf, and it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I was 13 years old and my friend Ian Saguan taught me how to surf. We had no money, so first, we rode whatever bits of plywood we could find.
Poks Esquivel in Canguu : photo Tim Hain
We moved on to coconut trunks, parts of an old bangka, and broken surfboards. Then, some Australians left us their used surfboards, and we were unstoppable. It's all I've wanted to do since. And it's all that I have done since." Years passed and Poks' surfing improved...and impressed. However, Poks’ recent, if modest, successes did not occur overnight.
Reality refused to conform to the convenient meanderings of fairytales, and it took many years and more disappointments before Poks became a teamrider of the prestigious StokedInc-Billabong surf team. "I'm just a simple province boy, so I believed everybody's promises. Many people promised me scholarships, sponsorships, and contracts. But nothing happened. It was all talk.
I was heartbroken at first, and after a while, I just stopped believing," muses Poks. "I became a beachside bum. I surfed, but not seriously and not well. I drank too much. I just didn't know what to do with myself," reveals Poks. "Then a few years ago, I met my now great friend, Australian surfer Paul Stranner."
Paul Stranner had already seen Poks surf as early as 1997. Yet, it was only during an extended La Union vacation in 2005 that he made Pok’s acquaintance. “I had a good chat with Paul at Surf Camp (The San Juan Surf Resort) that summer morning, and by nighttime, Paul and I had partied in all the clubs in town, ” Poks recollects smiling. Since that time, Stranner has been an unconditional benefactor and, above all, a compassionate friend with a guiding hand.
“Within a few weeks of knowing him, Paul gave me 10,000 pesos to compete in the annual Siargao surf comp. He’s pushed me to improve my surf skills. But what I like most is that he has taught me how to be helpful to my community in many small ways. We built the steps going from the beach up the seawall. We fixed the footpaths so that the kids won’t slip while walking during the rainy season, and we try to clean up the garbage around us.”
Somewhat randomly, Poks mischievously interjects with a chuckle, “ Oh, Paul Stranner also introduced me to the great music of the Chemical Brothers and Tiesto. So my surfing cutbacks are good, my dance moves are even way better.” Upon seeing Poks shake his booty with a skip here and a stumble there, there appears to be some grain of truth to this playful declaration, even if only in the admirable effort and fervour he puts into it.
On the increasingly busy weekends that characterise La Union during the surf season, Poks hobbles down to the Billabong Surf School, at the San Juan Surf Resort (known to all as Surf Camp), to shoot the breeze with good friend and StokedInc-Billabong team mate Luke Landrigan, and quite frankly, flirt with the bikini-clad hotties from Manila.
Luke is owner and head surf instructor of the Billabong Surf School, and team captain of both the StokedInc-Billabong surf squad and the Philippine national surf team. He recently led the national surf team to four medals, garnering a silver medal himself, in the recent Olympic-sanctioned Asian Beach Games in Bali and personally recruited Poks into StokedInc-Billabong.
“The Billabong Surf School in La Union has been a good venue for me to give back to the community by introducing the country to the wonderful sport of surfing," says Luke. "Last year alone, I’d say a little over five thousand people tried out surfing here at The Billabong Surf School. But with the immeasurable amount of waves and islands in the country, I believe one million Filipinos trying out surfing is an achievable target.
In my little knowledge of advanced mathematics, this translates to more hot girls in Billabong bikinis and all of them for Poks, the fearlessly footless phenom, the single-stumped supersurfer, the one-legged wonder," Luke says with brotherly impishness. On that incentive, Luke and Poks are definitely among the fortunate few who will never have to quit their day jobs.
"As part of the Billabong family, it’s great to have Poks around when we provide lessons for all these newbies in our surf school," says Luke. "He’s an amazing example to everybody, whether in and out of the water. Look at him. If he can achieve all that with his physical limitations, then we don’t have an excuse for ourselves. When people see him take on those big waves and surf with so much style, and all this on one-leg, they are in absolute awe. Even the pro surfers who saw him in Bali were impressed."
Amongst them was former world champion Mick Fanning, and it's a story Poks likes to dish out. "It was really out of luck that I met Mick," Poks says. "Our team had just finished doing an early morning surf shoot in Bali with our good friend Tim Hain (media director and photographer for the Indonesian Surf Championship and Surftime Magazine), and luckily, he prints out photos of our best surf moves that day.
That afternoon, Tim invites us to a surf party attended by Mick Fanning. I had Mick autograph that picture of me surfing, and it took him a few moments to realize I had only one leg. I remember his face. He was in shock. He was like, is that you surfing, mate?! Mate, that is sickkkk, mate!” narrates Poks. “Sick” means incredulously brilliant in the colourful patois of Surfspeak.
“The following morning, we had another early morning photo shoot with Tim Hain, and this time, Mick Fanning was out in the lineup surfing too. The 2007 world champion himself! I was so excited, I almost grew another leg,” giggles Poks. “A camera crew was there, and an entire battalion of surf photographers. I think I got as much coverage as Mick because nobody had ever seen a one-legged surfer. And the waves were huge that morning,” recalls Poks.
Poks Esquivel with Mick Fanning & Rob Machado : photo Joncy Sumulong
“I was really so nervous with all the attention from the media, but I surfed my heart out. Mick just kept watching me surf. He then paddles over to me and says, mate, you absolutely rip! Where’d you party last night?!” “When he said that, I was totally stoked,” says Poks.
“I am astounded at the positive impact and recall-factor Poks has on the world surf community,” says Mumph Ruiz, Marketing and PR Director for StokedInc. “Ever since the StokedInc-Billabong team was sent to Bali for training last August, the international surf community promptly realised that Poks Esquivel exists in the surf universe. Bali is fast becoming the epicentre of the global surf industry as it has the best waves on earth. And Poks certainly is one of a kind. He is a phenom.”
“Leafing through major surfing publications, we’ve seen letters to the editor that make mention of a Poks’ sighting. After all, seeing him surf is unforgettable and suspends one in utter disbelief. He’s a bit like the Lochness Monster in that way,” teases Mumph. “The stories are quite moving and makes all our work worthwhile and fulfilling. In one letter for instance, one surfer speaks of a friend who recently had two legs amputated and needed a sponsor.
Another responds saying that sponsorship was certainly possible after having spotted a ludicrously talented one-legged surfer in Bali who happened to be a Billabong teamrider. That one-legged wonder just happened to be one Mr. Ronie Esquivel,” Mumph says with undisguised pride and joy. “Poks’ impact on surfing will be unparalleled. He’s an inspiring story and a profound illustration of sheer determination for everyone. I feel very privileged in growing Philippine surfing with him on our team.”
The team Mumph speaks of is a fastidiously-selected surf squadron assembled by StokedInc President and CEO JV Borromeo and Luke Landrigan after prudent deliberation and with a lucid appreciation for foresight. While Luke himself is considered the most famous surfer in the country, it is difficult not to speak of the remainder of the team extracted of superlatives.
After all, its pod of waveriders include Carlito Nogalo (the Philippines’ best and most experienced surfer), Dodo Espejon (the country’s most explosive surfer), Piso Alcala (the finest and most inventive young surf talent in the nation), and Nildie Blancada-Reitenbach (the best female surfer in the country). The accolades are buttressed by minimal talk and founded on maximum performance.
Since its inception in September 2007, The Team has won every major surf competition in which it has participated in absolute domination of the sport. It’s capacities are further highlighted by Poks Esquivel, whose innate gifts and ineffable talents, inspite of severe physical adversity, are off the map and beyond the galaxy.
"Luke and I have put together a rather amusing, timid, and whimsical gaggle of surfers," laughs JV Borromeo with unconcealed paternal affection. "To my surprise, they also sometimes know how to win surf competitions," he smiles. "Yet, at the end of the day, beyond the trophies and the victory celebrations, The StokedInc-Billabong philosophical ethos remains simple and succinct: Core AND Core Values. I like its brevity and precision,” JV says.
“What this means is that we are interested in people who are great surfers AND wonderful human beings as well. To my mind, more important than our surfers competitive accomplishments, we want them to be exceptional role models and ambassadors for surfing, the surf lifestyle, as well as the StokedInc and Billabong brand. In that respect, Ronie
"Poks" Esquivel is, unquestionably, a perfect match for us," JV says, “ I was deeply honoured when he decided to be a significant component of our team. He will be an inspiration to many.” The years of heartaches and disappointments have diminished with little histrionics, receding into the forgotten, as Poks eases into his role as surfing ambassador.
He takes to it as one would snuggle contentedly on an well-worn comfortable sofa on a clear September morning. “Surfing has really been good for La Union,” Poks says. “With people from Manila, young and old, coming over to surf, it’s given people jobs. It’s made the weekends more fun. And it’s a good feeling to be recognized by them. When they tell me that they’re no longer scared to surf when they see that I am able to do it, then I feel really happy.”
“Surfing is also a way out for the kids. With all the attention on surfing, maybe one day, the kids can get sponsorships and make a living being surf instructors and even surf camp owners. Who knows, they might even get on the professional tour one day,” Poks says. “Luke and Kuya JV (Borromeo) have put together the annual Billabong Grommet Competition which is a surf comp for kids 16-years old and below (grommets).
Every November or December, we bring in all the top young guns from as far as Siargao Island, Baler , and Samar to compete here in La Union for one weekend to decide who the best young surfer is in the country today,” Poks reveals. “It’s a crazy and fun time, eighty to a hundred grommets going mental and sneaking into sick barrels,” Poks says in a funny yet appealing Ilokano-accent laced with Aussie-surfer intonations.
“Best of all, because these kids come from very poor communities, the Billabong Grommet Competition gives them a chance to get recognized, and it gives the kids a lot of hope. I get to help in organizing and running the event. It’s a good thing, and I’m really happy to be part of it.”
When asked what he wants to do in the future, Poks confines his aspirations to the modest dimensions of the austere surf lifestyle. “I want to surf everyday. I want to surf with the same innocent excitement of a grommet. If I get the chance to keep surfing here and abroad, maybe it will show others that anybody can surf, no matter how you’re shaped, no matter what age.
If that happens, then I’ll feel I’ve shared something.” Here he pauses, and smiles. “Oh, and I wanna catch a really great wave, long ride, glassy and sweet, before sunset today.” All that seems to be just about more than enough for the young Poks Esquivel. Who can blame him? In such matters, oft-phrased yet all true, only a surfer knows the feeling.
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