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How Jheck Dionela became Philippine volleyball's Ironlady

ESPN5

In the PBA, Barangay Ginebra playmaker L.A. Tenorio has garnered praise and respect for not only his steady leadership, but also because of his insane record of not having missed a single professional game in his more than a decade in the league.

Tenorio's "Ironman" tag applies to athletes that have exhibited an uncanny ability to play through injuries and illnesses and still perform at the highest possible level. If Michael Jordan had a "flu game", Tenorio must have also had the same experience on more than one occasion but have chosen to downplay it.

In the Philippine Superliga, only one player in its eight-year history has played in all the games her team has seen action: Jheck Dionela of the Cignal HD Spikers.

Many would think that this diminutive floor patroller, whose gung-ho style of defense makes her seem to mop the Taraflex with her jersey, must have gotten sidelined because of her tenacious style of play. Apparently, the former University of Perpetual Help star has bucked all sorts of reasons to sit out a game just to help quench her insatiable desire to compete.

The irony of it all is that Dionela never really wanted to be a volleyball star. In her youth, she never even wanted to play the sport that has now made her one of the most iconic names in the country.

"I started playing volleyball at around fourteen," Dionela told ESPN5.com. "My father and uncles used to play but I (felt I) wasn't really good with sports, truth be told."

Dionela was raw and reckless learning the fundamentals that she would often get into trouble and was even not asked to join the games anymore because she would damage things.

"My dad would apologize on my behalf if I destroyed anything and would sometimes even end up fixing the damage I did. We weren't wealthy." Dionela recalled. "But they were always encouraging me to keep playing, even if I didn't want to anymore. My mom even went to the extent of using her hard earned money to get me shoes-and even had to pay for it through installment-just so that I could continue playing."

But Dionela later on still chose to forego an athletic lifestyle and concentrate on her studies, where she did very well and even excelled in extra-curricular activities such as art, the school's dance troupe and even the drum and lyre corps.

Fate dealt her a twist one day when her dance rehearsal was cancelled in the quadrangle because there was a volleyball tryout ongoing.

"I was just sitting there when someone asked if I wanted to tryout. I declined," she said. "Then my brother's girlfriend, who was a volleyball varsity member, came up to me and convinced me to tryout saying that she'd be going to our home later on and we could go together after. So I reluctantly agreed."

It didn't go as she envisioned.

"I was cut," Dionela exclaimed. "I was cut twice (when I tried out a second time) because of the same reason: I'm small and I'm not good. They said they had no spot for me on the team.

"I came home crying. 'So that's how it feels to be rejected twice.'"

But then frustration gave way to determination and an urge to prove the volleyball team wrong.

"I borrowed a volleyball and I did walling (hitting the volleyball against the wall and hitting it again as it travelled back) the whole night until my arm literally ached," she recounted. "I did this almost every day for a month. From that day (on), I knew something in me lit up and soon (it) became (a) fire."

She tried out and got cut again, but she this time she persevered and despite her shortcomings she eventually made it to the team out of just always being present and hardworking. She described herself as being an "ornament" on the bench.

"I'd have to wait for someone to get injured or get sick before they would actually put me in." Dionela said.

She put in all the effort she could and would do libero duties with the same ferocity despite not being able to afford knee pads. But then as her high school varsity days were about to come to an end due to her impending graduation, someone told her to "play your best now because you're not cut out to be a college level player."

"Those words sunk deep into my soul," Dionela shared. "(Those words) almost drowned my beliefs (about) everything good (that I had become). Words that I can never forget and it inspired me to work harder every day, but deep down inside I was really afraid thinking that (it) could be right."

Needing to earn a scholarship to pursue her ambitions of going to college, the little non-bluechip floor patroller from rural Pasay tried out for the big schools.

"My idol was Manilla Santos (star attacker of renowned De La Salle University)," Dionela admitted. "So I tried out for the College of St. Benilde squad because it was close to La Salle."

The Lady Blazers had a rock solid line-up at the time with Doreen Hernandez, Katty Kwan, Cindy Velasquez and Ren Agero already making waves in the Shakey's V-League.

"I was cut...again," she looked back. "The coaching staff, however, offered to get me on the team but I'd have to fork out the first semester's tuition fees and they'd work out a deal to get me a scholarship in the second semester. This is De La Salle University-the College of St. Benilde. I knew that I could not be able to afford the tuition fees so I began to feel a sense of hopelessness set in."

She headed home but decided to find solace before that.

"I went to Baclaran church to cry." Dionela admits. "Then a few days later a former high school teammate of mine asked if I wanted to tryout at the (University of) Perpetual Help (System DaLTa). I found the campus to be too far but my desperation had me deciding to go anyway. At that point I really had nothing to lose."

After her first tryout, she was immediately accepted on the Altas' regular roster as a walk-on freshman with a full scholarship. She had gotten so used to rejection that she didn't know what to make of garnering success on her first attempt.

"I even got shocked when I went back and the coach (Mike Rafael) said he had already had me enrolled," Dionela beamed with elation. "They said they needed me that bad so I actually felt wanted for the first time. It was bliss."

But that didn't come without its share of hardships.

"Since they got their players from their high school ranks, I was the only one who lived farther away," she said. "I had to commute daily to Las Piñas from Pasay and that was very harrowing. There'd be times that I'd barely have enough money to go to school and go back home. Also, since our practices were at night, I'd nap in the restroom and sometimes go for long stretches without food just to make my money last. It was a struggle, but who am I to complain about free education?"

Soon after Dionela's freshman year, the Altas suddenly became a program to be reckoned with and began heavily recruiting to build around their budding star.

"The next year, they brought in Royse (Tubino, who would eventually snare two NCAA MVP awards) and Sandra (de los Santos, who would also be feted as an MVP in the Shakey's V-League)," Dionela said. "But even if the team was getting stronger, I still had to get used to travelling to and from school daily. My requests for a dorm were denied and I had to prove that I deserved these benefits, even if I was just a walk-on.

"That year, I won my first Best Libero award, and I got my dorm."

Dionela went on to showcase her skills in front of national television audiences in both the NCAA and the V-League. After winning the NCAA title in 2012, the diminutive lass who used to break jeepneys' side mirrors and and hit neighbor's gates was feted as UPHSD's Athlete of the Year, the first volleybelle and smallest recipient of the award.

"I was so happy that (PBA cager) Scottie Thompson was not in my generation," Dionela joked.

Success then seemed to follow her in what is now a volleyball career.

In the V-League, Dionela was part of history as she amassed 69 excellent digs and receptions against the Maynilad Water Dragons in 2011, which still is a league record. She was also part of the Cagayan Valley Lady Rising Stars squad that had a perfect 16-0 season en route to the V-League Open Conference title in 2012 and was on that roster when it transitioned to the fledgling Philippine Superliga in 2013.

However, it was when Dionela signed with the Cignal HD Spikers during the 2013 PSL Grand Prix that she went from star to icon and in between played a staggering 193 consecutive matches-the most in PSL history.

That ironlady mark was tarnished this season when she failed to suit up for Cignal in their Grand Prix matcup against the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers due to an illness. She was persistent on playing but doctors and her coaching staff had to step in to have her rest.

"Even if I hadn't practiced the whole week due to a stomach ailment, I still wanted to play," Dionela said. "But the coaches and doctors advised me to sit it out."

The only records that can be dug up is in the PSL, but Dionela said it was the first match she had ever missed since high school.

"I never missed a match, ever," she said emphatically. "I played through fever, dysmenorrhea, ankle and knee injuries and I was always giving it my everything. I sometimes even ask myself when will I ever get tired of playing? I haven't answered that question yet."

Through being selected to the national team, winning championships wherever she played and to attaining "ironlady" status, Dionela always looks back at her humble beginnings as the fuel that motivates her forward progress.

"Looking back, I can't believe I got here on a 300-peso a week budget," she reflects. "But I feel really blessed. This journey is special and the fun part about missing the 194th game is that I can restart the streak again. Volleyball has become my life and I'm very grateful for where volleyball has taken me."

Her voyage is still in mid-flight, but it appears that Jheck Dionela might just make good on her goal to reclaim the status of being Philippine volleyball's "Ironlady".