The Manila South Cemetery, one of the largest cemeteries in Metro Manila, is a rich study of contradiction. Disturbing the reverent hush that hovers above all cemeteries is a rhythmic bouncing of a ball on concrete. A group of teenagers in flip-flops is playing basketball on a half court, with a bottomless bucket nailed to a pole serving as the hoop. Three blocks away, snaking between locked mausoleums, are clotheslines heavy with dripping T-shirts, underwear, and baby clothes. It’s a hot day; all that sun makes for a productive laundry day.
Just like a few other sprawling cemeteries in Metro Manila, the Manila South Cemetery has its share of living residents by the thousands. But perhaps the biggest head-scratcher to come out of this 25-hectare graveyard is Ringo Borlain. This hulk of a man grew up inside the cemetery with his parents and three siblings. His father—and eventually, Borlain—supported the family by digging graves and handling tombstones. Borlain had every excuse to stay in the cemetery and live his father’s life. Instead, he got a college scholarship, moved out, bulked up, and became the first of two Filipinos to earn a spot—and win—in the Mr. and Ms. Universe Bodybuilding Competition.
Surviving among the dead
“Siga ng sementeryo. Yun si Ringo nung lumalaki kami,” says Rizal Quibulue, Borlain’s childhood friend. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Borlain and his friends had the run of the cemetery. Save for the frequent hunger pangs that they had no choice but to ignore, Borlain and his buddies were just like every other Pinoy kid after school. “Mahilig kaming magtaguan,” says Quibulue. “Maganda magtaguan sa sementeryo kasi madaling magtago sa mga patay.” They’d play luksong tinik and baril-barilan between headstones and across graves.
When it came time to earn some cash, the cemetery had lots to offer the entrepreneurial spirit. Aside from digging graves and lifting tombstones, Borlain and his friends would get the flowers from a burial once all the attendees had left. And they’d sell the rearranged flowers to unsuspecting grieving folk. “Pag maraming patay, mas masaya ka kasi may trabaho ka,” says Borlain. “Pag walang namamatay, malungkot ka kasi wala kang trabaho. Hindi mo tuloy alam kung pagdadasal mo na may mamatay.”
For food, Borlain would go to friends’ houses and pay for a meal and a bed for a night by helping around the house for the day. “Namimingwit din kami ng hito sa kanal pag may bagyo,” says Quibulue.“Kailangan may konting diskarte,” Borlain adds. Although he remembers his childhood as a happy one, Borlain knew even when he was seven that he didn’t want this kind of life forever.
Borlain’s natural athleticism was his key to escaping poverty. He earned a basketball scholarship in PUP and got paid a monthly allowance.
“After college, I worked as a waiter, a busboy, a ball boy in the south harbor. Marami akong pinasok na trabaho,” says Borlain. Eventually, he found his way to Saudi Arabia where he began working out and getting big. This post got him a job as a gym trainer in a US military base during the Gulf War.
By 2005, Borlain was a PE teacher, a gym manager, a personal trainer, a husband, and a father. “I grew up watching Elma Muros, Lydia de Vega, and the Crispa players on the news,” says 51-year-old Borlain. “I dreamed of being in their position, pero sa paraan na hindi pa nagagawa.”
Borlain’s thesis for his master’s degree in sports nutrition, in a way, paved this path for him. “I saw how nutrition could change my body composition, enhance my well-being, and help me gain my physique,” he says.
He went into bodybuilding, and decided to not stop there. Borlain began to join local and international bodybuilding competitions. “My aim was to bring recognition to the Philippines like my idol athletes did,” says Borlain.
After around his seventh competition, Borlain aimed higher. He quit his teaching job and focused on training for the 2006 Mr. and Ms. Bodybuilding Competition in Cuxhaven, Germany. By then, he and his wife Carol had two daughters, both under 5.
“When you’re training for something, you’re going to be selfish,” Borlain says. “All you think about is, ‘What will be my next meal?’ ‘What will I drink next?’ You don’t want anyone touching your food because you prepared it exactly how you need it to be. My wife was a huge support there.”
All the hard work paid off. At 40 years old, Borlain and his bodybuilding partner, Maria Crishiela Abantao, qualified for the competition. It would be the first time for Filipinos to be in it.
The problem was Borlain couldn’t afford to go.
“I needed a lot of financial help to make it to Germany. I only had USD500 in savings,” says Borlain. “When my partner and I were interviewed on TV before we had to leave for the competition, I asked the viewers for help.”
They responded generously. Two friends shouldered Borlain’s round-trip plane fare. An acquaintance offered her friend’s pad in Germany for Borlain to stay in after the competition, when his complementary hotel stay had lapsed. Other friends, inspired by Borlain’s TV interview, sent pocket money. By the time Borlain and his partner flew out, Borlain had USD3,500 in cash.
Overcoming the odds
Arriving in Germany, Borlain knew that he and Abantao would be the underdogs in the competition. “Maraming mas malalaki at magaganda kaysa sa amin,” Borlain says. “But we had confidence in our moves, in our routine.” He and Abantao competed in their individual categories as well as the couples category.
As he expected, the competition was not without obstacles. There was outright discrimination, for instance. “We were originally positioned front and center onstage, standing in front of all the other competitors,” says Borlain. “But a few minutes later, we were asked to move to the far right, and were replaced with the Russian couple. We didn’t mind.”
Borlain and Abantao didn’t let this hiccup faze them. “We focused on our skills instead,” Borlain says. “We were close friends, so there was trust between us. That gave us confidence, and boosted our morale.”
It also helped that Borlain and Abantao choreographed their moves themselves, with the assistance of some friends in the industry. They knew their moves by heart. “During our performance, we moved in sync because we breathed together. That was our secret,” says Borlain. “We obviously couldn’t talk to each other to give each other cues. So through eye contact, we communicated with each other during our routine. We had good harmony and chemistry.”
Their focus and determination pushed them to win. Borlain and Abantao took the top spot in the couples division; Abantao placed fourth in her individual category; and Borlain placed 14th in his. “They were all big and beautiful, but we had the best balance,” says Borlain. “And, of course, prayer helped a lot.”
Back home, Borlain and Abantao each received the Presidential Medal of Merit, plus P100,000, from then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. “More than the monetary prize—which we truly appreciated—ang nakakataba ng puso ay yung naiangat namin ang Pilipinas sa pamamagitan ng competition na yun,” Borlain says.
Onward and upward
Since he quit his job prior to leaving for Germany, there was no work waiting for Borlain when he came home. “So I concentrated on helping people,” he says. “Mayors, churches, NGOs invited me to talk about my life. It wasn’t about winning in Germany, but about dealing with trials.”
Today, Borlain works as a personal trainer to children, especially his own— Sam, 15, Tara, 14, and Chezka, 8—who are all champion triathletes, and all well-known in the triathlete circuit. Borlain is a strict father, personally preparing his girls’ meals and overseeing their training. Although Tara and Sam are gearing up for college, and have their eyes set on non-athletic jobs post-college, Ringo’s dream to bring honor to the Philippines is alive and well in his daughters. As early as now, Tara is training to make it to the Olympics for track.
“The discipline I acquired from poverty, I still have it, and I pass it on to my daughters,” says Borlain. “Wala kang aasahan [sa kahirapan], kaya natuto akong umasa sa sarili ko, at sa dasal. My journey to conquer the universe started in the cemetery. That’s where I learned the essence of living.”