Monica Chernoff (senior) will compete on the Philippines women’s national water polo team in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) Nov. 26–Dec. 1. The biennial event features 11 participating countries, 56 sports and 8,750 athletes and team officials, according to the SEA Games website. Organizers estimate more than 500 million viewers from around the world. Chernoff, a psychology major and attacker for Occidental’s women’s water polo team, first heard of her selection for the 13-person national team in September. Since then, she has been training in Southern California alongside her teammates in preparation for the international tournament.
Founded in 1959 and overseen by the International Olympic Committee, this year’s 30th-anniversary SEA Games will be hosted in Manila, the capital of the Philippines. While men’s water polo has appeared at the SEA Games since 1965, women’s water polo only recently joined the competition’s schedule in 2011. Earlier this year, the women’s division was nearly excluded from the 2019 SEA Games before organizers reversed the decision in March following appeals from the Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia teams.
The Philippine women’s team, nicknamed the “Philippine Sirens,” first competed at the SEA Games in 2015 with a team comprised of Philippine locals, Chernoff said. After that, the team decided to recruit players from the United States who had Filipino American heritage. According to Chernoff, a team’s performance in the SEA Games can determine their qualification for the Asian Games, and from there, the Olympics.
Chernoff is not new to competing in water polo at the international level. In 2017, during her sophomore year, she joined the Philippine national team after reaching out via email to express interest. At the time, the women’s team was in its developing stages, and Chernoff said membership was more informal. This year, interest in the national team has increased, and Chernoff flew to the Philippines for seven days in May to try out for the 2019 roster.
For Chernoff, her excitement comes not only from being able to represent the Philippines, but from the opportunity to elevate water polo’s popularity at the international level.
“I feel like what’s very meaningful about this journey is we’re putting water polo on the map in Southeast Asian countries,” Chernoff said. “Water polo is very popular in Europe and in America, but the fact that I can be part of this beginning of a journey where we get to spread the sport of water polo is really incredible and really something that I’m so proud to be a part of.”
To train throughout the week, the team scrimmages local college teams, practices with the Commerce water polo club, competes in community college tournaments and plays in games almost every weekend. According to Chernoff, USA Water Polo has helped connect the Philippine team with local practices and games.
Chernoff said one of the team’s biggest challenges has been the lifestyle sacrifices players have made in order to join the national team. Four players are Philippine locals who flew to the U.S. for the team’s two-month training. Other players have taken time off school, left their job or parted from family members back home. Chernoff herself is a part-time student and commutes from Eagle Rock to Orange County, where the team is currently based.
Tine Hipol, a center, took a leave of absence from her position working in the Philippine government’s Department of Transportation so she could focus on training. This is Hipol’s second time competing in the SEA Games.
“Being surrounded by strong girls and having a lot of fun with them is what I love most being on the team,” Hipol said via email. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride the past few months of training. But having my teammates with me while getting to know more about them made this journey better.”
Attacker and center Gabi Sicat is a third-year student at Santa Clara University who took a quarter off school in order to train and travel with the team. In addition to growing and connecting with her teammates — some of whom are now her closest friends, though she met them just a couple of months ago — the SEA Games’ location in Manila is especially meaningful for Sicat.
“It is a such an honor to represent the Philippines in SEA Games this year. Especially because SEA Games is hosted in the Philippines,” Sicat said via email. “Even more specifically, the water polo tournament will be in New Clark Aquatics Center in Pampanga, which is where my father’s side of the family is from. It is so exciting to be able to see family whom I don’t get to see often and also play for the whole country of the Philippines.”
The New Clark Aquatics Center is the Philippines’ first world-class sports facility since 1934. Chernoff, like Sicat, is also excited to compete in the complex.
“It hasn’t even hit me — the fact that I’m gonna go compete in the Philippines, I’m going to be representing the country in their home pool in the new center,” Chernoff said.
Chernoff remembers first falling in love with water polo after joining a local water polo club in the seventh grade. When she was in high school and elementary school, Chernoff said she did not really acknowledge or appreciate her Filipino culture, but when she arrived at college, Chernoff realized how important Filipino culture was to her identity.
“Being part of the Philippine team is so special because I’ve also grown up being a water polo athlete, and just having that combined with having teammates who are also Filipino is really teaching me a lot about what it means to be a water polo player, and also what it means to be a Filipino American,” Chernoff said.
On campus, Chernoff is the community chair for OXY PUSO, or Pilipinx United Students Organization, the cultural Filipino club at Occidental. According to co-treasurer Serena Francisco (junior), Chernoff helped restart PUSO in Fall 2017. Chernoff said feeling a sense of pride in Filipino heritage motivates not just her, but the rest of the team.
“Funny thing is, yesterday, we had this team meeting about what we’re grateful for, and all of us shared how grateful we are for the sport,” Chernoff said. “We all love water polo so much because it has led to many great things in our lives. And second, I think we’re just really grateful for our culture and our pride in representing the Philippines — whether you’re living in the Philippines or like me, I’m half, and a lot of the girls grew up in the States. We just have so much pride in our Philippine culture and identities, and we’re just really excited to get this opportunity to play.”