Michele Gumabao: the reluctant volleybelle

The author visiting Michele Gumabao at the DLSU campus (Photo: Noel Zarate)

As of this moment, she is ONE HUNDRED PERCENT SURE that she will not be returning for her fifth and final year as a student-athlete for De La Salle University (DLSU) to compete in Season 76 of the Universities Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) women’s volleyball competition.

She claims she’s done with volleyball as a collegiate player. She’s graduating this October and she will do On the Job Training (OJT) this summer at this brand new resort as part of her BS Marketing Management degree requirements. After that, she intends to pursue a career in either marketing or television hosting. If it were up to her, she would immerse herself into agriculture and develop her father’s lush property in Zambales and turn it into a farm and livestock business. Yes, she has a lot of goals and ambitions, but none of them involve helping the Lady Spikers attain a fourth straight crown. As of this moment, she is one hundred percent sure of her decision—as of this moment.

But how can we all picture the volleyball scene without one of its main centerpieces?

Michele Gumabao (7) and her final confetti shower? (Photo: Kevin de la Cruz/Rivals.ph)

Michele Gumabao is certainly one of the catalysts in bringing an up and coming spectator sport into the national—and even international (trending) consciousness. Let’s say for an instant that it was really the mystique of the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry that brought droves to watch the games. The main characters were also under the microscope and you can’t overlook that Michele was among those who made a huge difference. In a 2011 article I wrote for UAAP Magazine, I referred to her as the new “poster-girl” of Philippine volleyball; effectively claiming the title formerly held by ambassadresses like Ateneo’s Charo Soriano, Far Eastern University’s Rachel Anne Daquis, UP’s Jed Montero and UST’s Denise Tan. As early as then, I was already proclaiming her to be the new star of the sport. Being named UAAP Season 75’s Finals MVP punctuated that.

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Yet despite her status now as the new volleyball heroine, Michele was not really touted to be one when she got into it.

Michele Theresa Imperial Gumabao was born in San Mateo, California on September 2, 1992 and is the fifth of seven children of Dennis Roldan; a former actor and public servant who was indicted on kidnapping charges a few years back. The sensationalisms surrounding her celebrity father was something that she has grown to live with and actually even draw strength from.

The future volleyball star with one of her first teammates (Photo Courtesy of Michele Gumabao)

“When I was growing up, my dad was either in showbiz or politics so I got used to it,” Michele recounts. “The family became even closer through all the rough times because all the things my dad went through made us grow stronger together.”

Roldan, whose real name is Mitchell Gumabao, has since found God through his days in incarceration and the entire family has converted to the Born-Again Christian faith.

The Gumabao family: unique strength (Photo Courtesy of Michele Gumabao)

“I believe our new faith actually helped me become a better volleyball player because it made me more disciplined, unlike before,” Michele confesses.

Not very many people know that she is the second of her brood to play for the DLSU volleybelles. Older sister Katrina was once a member of the Lady Archers (as they were then known), but her stint on the squad lasted all of one season.

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“Kat (Katrina’s nickname) left the team before her second season because that was the time when dad went to jail," Michele explains. "We were all affected by it, and she chose to quit."

Michele claims that she was a chubby youngster who was only introduced to volleyball in high school because of her height.

The towering "chubby" high schooler (#2): future DLSU "walk-on" (Photo Courtsey of Michele Gumabao)

“Our training in (Holy Spirit) high school (in Quezon City) was not really that strenuous,” Michele recalls. “We trained about twice a week and we were never really competitive, so no one came to recruit me unlike most of my teammates who were really scouted and brought in.”

In short, Michele was a DLSU walk-on and never a highly-touted high school prodigy like Season 75 co-MVPs Abigail Maraño and Ara Galang; who as early as their junior years in high school were already on the radar of many tertiary educational establishments. She tried out for the team because her sister once played and her height—5’9”—made her quite the standout in any line.

But Michele was a dedicated party-girl as a teenager and—like her sister before her—found that being in the Ramil de Jesus system was not like her varsity days in Holy Spirit.

Party-Girl: “I used to go out and really go home late, even during school days..." (Photo: Michele Gumabao's Facebook …

“I used to go out and really go home late, even during school days,” Michele confides. “Because I was tall, a lot of bars thought I was over the age limit so I got to go to a lot of places despite being very young. I loved the gimiks and being in college, I did it even more.

“But I knew I had to be up early for training and this was really hard.” The volleyball varsity practices at 8:30 in the morning; a definite challenge for nocturnal souls.

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The 2009-2010 Lady Archers squad had a power frontline of Stephanie Mercado (Lydia de Vega’s daughter), Jacqueline Alarca (eventual league MVP) and Charlene Cruz (eventual Finals MVP). Michele, due to her underdeveloped skills and the enormity of the names in front of her, couldn’t crack the starting line-up. That all changed when her newfound faith set in and discipline began ruling her life as a student-athlete.

(L-R) Mercado, Cruz and Alarca formed DLSU's power frontline (photo with former center Celine Hernandez, not in …

“I started going out less and if I did, I’d make sure I was home early,” Michele says. “Being on the team and being with the girls was something that was very important to me, so my faith made it feel that I wasn’t sacrificing but contributing.”

By her sophomore year, de Jesus found just the right spot for Michele to enter the Starting Six: Utility Spiker.

“Paneng (Stephanie Mercado), Jac (Alarca) and Cha (Cruz) were fixtures in the frontline,” Michele looks back. “They earned their spots. So having me in as utility didn’t hamper that."

Eventual co-captains Maraño and Gumabao during the DLSU Season 75 team building (Photo from Michele Gumabao's Facebook …

With the vaunted combination working seamlessly in the system along with the setting of eventual Rookie of the Year Mika Esperanza, and the prowess of talented libero Melissa Gohing, DLSU recaptured the title it lost to the University of Santo Tomas the season previous. Despite the eventual departure of Mercado, Alarca and Cruz, the Lady Spikers went on cop two more championships. Not only that: La Salle has only lost a grand total of three matches since Michele made her debut in the starting line-up. Many experts say it was primarily because of her leadership that the Lady Spikers became so successful.

“You can see her intensity when she’s out there,” one sportswriter noted. “Pag may nagwawala siyang kakampi, siya yung unang lumalapit para maayos agad yung game plan (When she has a teammate who is out of sorts, she’s the first one who approaches and quells the situation to fix the game plan).”

“I just like being talkative,” Michele quickly points out. “I was told one time when I wasn’t in practice that it was so quiet. That’s why I guess many see me as the leader because I’m the one who talks a lot and I also try to keep everyone grounded.”

The vocal leader: Michele became a fixture in the starting six (Photo from Michele Gumabao's Facebook page)

That’s what will definitely be missed even more now that Michele has declared that she will not be returning for her fifth year.

“My goal is to graduate on time and join the workforce and I will get that done,” Michele announces definitively. “Coach Ramil’s system has worked all these years. Even if players leave, the team still keeps winning not because of one player, but because the system works so well. He is a great coach and DLSU will always be a great team as long as he’s there.”

Michele graduates this October (Photo from Michele Gumabao's Facebook page)

However, Michele admits that she will miss everything.

“The girls have been my sisters for four years,” she almost emotionally struggles. “Coach Ramil has been a father-figure to me all this time. He grills me when I make mistakes but also acknowledges me when I do a good job. He does that will all of us and my relationship with the team has become stronger because of all the experiences we shared together, on and off the court.

“But it’s time to move on. Everyone does sooner or later.”

Michele doesn’t discount the fact that maybe one day she’ll play again or even be involved as a non-player.

“I just want to achieve my goals in life first,” she says. “But I’m never leaving the game completely. I never will.”

A recent guesting on DZMM's "Sports Talk" hosted by Gretchen Fullido and Sen. Freddie Webb (Photo Courtesy of Michele …

Like most, Michele wants to settle down soon and have a family.

“I want to my parents to meet their grandkids,” Michele proclaims. “I never got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents because they passed away before I could get to know them. I’ll make sure that that doesn’t happen in my case.”

Michele is in a relationship with a former Green Archer cager and they have been a couple for just barely over a year.

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Whether or not she pulls a Ray Lewis and changes her mind on her imminent retirement from collegiate eligibility, Michele Gumabao has left an indelible imprint in the landscape of women’s volleyball in the archipelago. Because she has graced the sport, a new generation of Michele Gumabaos are one step closer to continuing a legacy that had very reluctant beginnings in a “chubby” high school lass who would eventually become one of the game’s biggest and brightest stars.

The smile of a winner: Michele Gumabao walks away a champion (Photo from Michele Gumabao's Facebook page)

Can La Salle win their fourth straight crown without her? That will be known next year. Can she ever be replaced as the Lady Spikers team leader? Yes, Maraño, Galang and wunderkind Mika Reyes are poised to do that already. Can anyone ever be the next Michele Gumabao? That’s really tough. Michele is once-in-a-lifetime student-athlete whose mark on the game is now permanent. Her unique combination of meekness and ferocity as well as beauty and brawn will hardly ever be found in a volleyball player again. But she leaves the door open for the future of the sport; one that she has helped build as a reluctant but bonafide volleyball star.

Volleyball owes her a tremendous pat on the back. Actually, we all do.

7 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Michele Gumabao:

1. Michele shares the same birthday with Albert Spalding (1850)—yes, his name is on the basketball, actor Keanu Reeves (1964), tennis icon Jimmy Connors (1952), former world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis (1965), football quarterback turned broadcaster Terry Bradshaw (1948), Boston Celtics great Nate “Tiny” Archibald (also 1948) and the Morris Twins of the Phoenix Suns (1989)… Oh, and of course Salma Hayek (1966)—how can I forget…

2. Michele’s father, Dennis Roldan (Mitchell Gumabao), was such an incredibly gifted athlete himself that despite being a professional actor already, he was still recruited to play in the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA) by Coach Arturo “Turo” Valenzona for the Gilbey’s Gin Gimlets during the 1983 season. Among Roldan’s teammates were 1980 PBA Rookie of the Year Willie Generalao, Terry Saldaña, Steve Watson and scoring machine Lew Massey. In the same year, Roldan also won Best Supporting Actor in the Metro Manila Film Festival for his role in the movie, Hot Property. Michele’s youngest brother is budding actor Marco Gumabao, who is slowly carving a name for himself in ABS-CBN’s “Luv U”.

Marco Gumabao, Michele's "rising star" younger brother

3. Michele and former Ateneo de Manila Blue Eagles basketball captain Kirk Long are set to appear in a renowned telecommunications company’s tutorial campaign on sports using an app found exclusively on the aforementioned company’s multimedia landline device (I’m pretty sure you know what apparatus I’m referring to here). Michele handles the volleyball instructional i.e. rules, techniques and training exercises (including her lethal jump-serve).

4. Michele "must" eat ice cream at least once a day—hence her forever husky voice. She also "needs" to visit the spa regularly—which she does with her best friend on the team, Liss Gohing.

Liss Gohing (L) and Michele are regular spa buddies (Photo: Michele Gumabao's Facebook page)

5. Michele's name is spelled with only ONE "L"; contrary to the common Michelle, which are both acceptable. The thing is she only found out when she was in COLLEGE that her name only had one "L". She had been writing her name with two "L's" since nursery.

6. Michele actually considered studying in Ateneo after she graduated from Holy Spirit High School because their family residence is in a nearby village in Quezon City (where she still lives today). Although she passed the ACET, she eventually opted to enroll at La Salle because many of her family members studied there.

7. Michele is left handed. She learned how to play volleyball using her right hand because, “…I didn’t see anyone using their left hand to play.”

Follow Noel Zarate on Twitter (@NoelZarate)

Editor's note: The blogger's views do not represent Yahoo! Southeast Asia's position on the topic or issue being discussed in this post.

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