Paeng recalls first trophy he won 50 years ago

Fifty years ago this week, Rafael “Paeng” Nepomuceno won the Class O tournament of the Tenpin Bowlers Association of Makati at the Coronado Lanes in Makati City.

He was 15, the youngest in the field. They were 11 other players who entered, including some who were old enough to be his father.

Paeng was nervous as he should be. But his late father Angel Nepomuceno, who also served as his coach, reminded him to just relax and enjoy the game.

Before being introduced to bowling, Paeng played golf for five years starting at the age of 10. His father was an avid golfer and regularly represented the University of Philippines in the Fil-Am Invitational in Baguio City.

It was during the Fil-Am tournament that Paeng discovered bowling.

“We were playing at Camp John Hay when heavy rain forced us to stop,” he recalled. “We didn’t know that there was a bowling center at Mile Hi. That’s where I played first bowled at the age of 12.”

Paeng, without prior lessons, scored 63 out of a perfect 300.

“This is where I realized that bowling is for me,” he said. “My father advised me to keep playing golf to improve my mental toughness.”

Paeng, however, realized he had to focus on one sport so he dropped golf when he was 15.

“Bowling was more organized than golf before. There was a tournament every Saturday for junior bowlers,” he recalled.

Five months before his first Class O tournament, Paeng said he was still a Class B player. He worked hard to achieve an average of 190, good enough to qualify for the open event.

“It’s a different level. I just wanted to enjoy the game. That has been the instruction from my father-coach. One competition at a time. He taught me how to control my nerves at an early age,” Paeng said.

The left-handed teenager went on to top the tournament, launching a legendary career that earned him 133 trophies, including four World Cup titles.

He won his first World Cup title at the age of 19 and his last in 1996, 16 years after his maiden victory.

Long before weight training became a standard, Paeng had been doing it as part of his preparation.

He was studying at La Salle Greenhills.

“We already had a physical regimen to follow to enhance my bowling game. A bit of jogging and weights were added aside from the practicing,” Nepomuceno said.

“We agreed that whenever I finished my homework, we could train.”

There was little to celebrate his first victory.

“I moved on and prepared for my next goal,” Paeng recalled.

In December of that same year, he captured the Philippine Open Junior Masters championship.

Paeng was on a roll. He clinched his first international crown at the Surabaya International Open tournament at 18 years old.

Aside from the World Cup, Paeng collected nine Southeast Asian Games gold medals, six Asian Championships, and a victory in the 2002 Asian Games.

He made it to the Guinness World Records four times and was named Athlete of the Year by the Philippine Sportswriters Association five times.

The plaque he won 50 years ago holds a special place in his trophy cabinet.
At 65, Paeng has not lost his passion for competition. He’s preparing to compete in a seniors tournament next week at the Playdium Bowling and Billiards Center in Araneta, Quezon City.

Last month, he came out of a three-year layoff and placed second in the senior’s division at Star Mall in Mandaluyong and sixth in the regular Masters event.

Despite the assortment of injuries he had to deal with, Paeng managed to stay fit by running and lifting weights twice and thrice a week, respectively.

The only Asian bowler to be given a gold-level coaching certification by the United States Bowling Congress, Paeng said he’s done coaching the national team and now serves as an adviser.

“Biboy (Rivera) is doing a good job as a coach,” he said.

Paeng now spends his time managing the bowling centers his family owns, including one in Baguio City.

Since scoring 63 the first time he threw the ball, Paeng has already recorded 31 perfect games in sanctioned events.

Expect him to go for another perfect game.

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