WELL-TRIMMED and a handsome mestizo at 6-foot-2 and already a two-time World Cup of Bowling champion, who wouldn’t recognize Rafael “Paeng” Nepomuceno bopping and grinding at the then-chic Where Else disco at the Hotel InterContinental?
Not to mention more dancing to Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical” and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” also at Mars on Makati Avenue and there you have a young man so successful in his chosen career—and sport—doing other things he loves most outside of the bowling alleys.
That was 1982, when Nepomuceno didn’t quite imagine yet that he was destined to become world champion four more times and turn out as one of the most recognizable bowling icons.
“When I was 25, like any other guys, I loved to hang out, dance, and what have you,” Nepomuceno, now 58 but still so much into competitive bowling, recalls. “And I do love going out of town, until now.”
It’s been mentioned over and over again, but no matter how many times Nepomuceno’s brightest achievements are outlined, they leave one always in awe.
Take a look:
• World Cup champion in four different decades—1976 in Tehran, Iran; 1980 in Jakarta, Indonesia; 1992 in Le Mans, France; and 1996 in Belfast, Northern Ireland;
• A total of 130 international titles, including the World Invitational Tournament in 1984 and World Tenpin Masters in 1999;
• Was named the Greatest International Bowler of All Time by the prestigious Bowlers Journal International in September 2003; and
• Youngest winner of the Philippine International Youth Open at 17.
So much for a young man who, also at 25, pulled off what he describes as his greatest achievement that made those glittering World Cup trophies pale in comparison—win the heart and wait down the aisle for Saira Puyat, who, for Nepomuceno, is the most precious trophy he has ever hoisted.
“That was when I was getting serious with my personal life. I was traveling a lot and I was looking forward to have my future wife be with me in competitions abroad,” Nepomuceno says.
“As it turned out, she was my lucky charm. I won four more world titles and established three Guinness world records, which are all unbroken up to this day.”
It turns out being in the limelight and a world champion is not everything for a Paeng Nepomuceno, whose nights of dancing and out-of-town sorties are always fitted into a regimen of discipline in the bowling alley.
Even with a strict father as coach—Angel—the younger Nepomuceno was in the thick of everything.
“I was in on what’s happening in the country—from the current trends to political, social and sports issues,” he says. “And I liked watching tennis, the likes of Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert.”
Hollywood movies were also tops in Nepomuceno’s list. Name it—the horror film Poltergeist to the sci-fi E.T., and of course, Brook Shields and Farah Fawcett, among others, and the hit TV series Dynasty—he was a fan of them all.
And like almost every other Filipino, Nepomuceno loves basketball. He admits to enjoying the fabled Crispa-Toyota rivalry in the Philippine Basketball Association, but kept his favorite team to himself.
And he ran, too.
“I was into running. I loved it and joined a lot of fun runs, mostly 10K, and collected those finisher’s certificates and t-shirts,” Nepomuceno says.
“I cross trained with weights for physical fitness. I was one of the first athletes in the Philippines who believed in cross training with other activities like running and weights in order to have positive effect on my sport,” he adds.
Blessed with three children—Rafael Jose, Saira Margarita Paz and Isabel Angela—Nepomuceno never ceases to aspire for more in his sport, even bucking a left-hand injury that needed surgery and sidelined him for a while in 1999.
“At 25, my career was really peaking. I really wanted to win more World Cups, the most prestigious tournament,” Nepomuceno proudly narrates.
But despite all those accomplishments—including becoming one of only 25 coaches certified as gold level by the United States Bowling Congress, something that compares to a doctorate degree in the academic world—Nepomuceno would never drop his bowling ball and replace those bowling shoes with any other.
“It’s really always a step by step for me,” Nepomuceno says. “Things didn’t happen overnight. And I will never turn my back to my sport. I’ll always be rolling that ball and toppling those pins.”