When I met football player Marielle Benitez, who served as team captain for the all-female football team the Malditas (sister team to the Azkals), she was in an orange athletic shirt, black shorts, and trainers, her hair was tied back in a less-than-neat ponytail, and she wore a smile as big as the world. I had let the dustiness of the field environs, the heat of the morning, and the humidity sap all my strength to the point where all I wanted to do was go into an air conditioned room and grab an icy drink. Yet having arrived even before I did and having more to do than just observe the goings on of Day 2 (football day) of the first ever all-girls sports camp by nonprofit organization Girls Got Game, Marielle Benitez was all smiles and bouncy hair.
Not long after we were introduced, I listened to her give a group of underprivileged girls an empowering speech about how no sport was closed to them just because people usually see girls playing it and how being an athlete could open so many doors of opportunity they never even though existed. But she wasn’t preaching her advocacy to them; she was telling them, this is my story, this is what sports did for me, and it could happen to you. And her audience was rapt faces alight with the wonder of discovery—and possibility. Listening to her talk, I stopped thinking of the meeting I’d surely be showing up hot and sweaty for and the deadlines that loomed, and I had to wonder, Who is this woman?
Of course, a quick Twitter check told me a lot and nothing at all. Her profile reads, “Kaptain Maldita #10.. Bayanihan performing artist.. Balls Channel Football Ambassador.. Mizuno Brand Ambassador.. MaC2GroupManila.. Educator.. Proud Filipina..” PinoyFootball.com told me a bit more: that she’s 34, stands 5’5 and weighs 145 pounds. I learned she was a midfielder, and since the only football position I was familiar with was that of goalie, I assumed this meant she did something in the middle of the football field. I learned she was a performing artist for the Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, as well as a TV host and analyst and the athletic director for the Philippine Women’s University.
But while I’d learned all her labels, I’d hardly learned anything about her. So naturally I asked for an interview. Keep reading to find out what I learned about this gorgeous, athletic, and giving modern Filipina.
For Love of the Game
While you often hear of athletes first playing their sport early on in life, Marielle was a fairly late comer to the game. “I began playing football when I was in first year high school. It was a newly formed club at Paref Woodrose, and my friends and I decided to try it out. Growing up, I’ve always enjoyed playing all kinds of sports, like tennis, gymnastics, swimming and martial arts. So, when the football club started, I thought it was a good excuse to play, have fun and hangout with my friends after school.”
What started out as a “good excuse” turned into something more fairly quickly, though. “I fell in love with football because it gave me an opportunity to be competitive and to challenge myself every time I played. At the same time, I was able to learn and enjoy playing the sport with my friends and seeing my parents and siblings cheering me on.”
She went on to play the sport for De La Salle University, where, in her sophomore year, she scored the winning goal in the last two minutes of extra time, earning her team the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) championship. “It was an unbelievable feeling,” Marielle shares. “I took the shot outside of the penalty box and everything went in slow motion until the ball entered right under the crossbar and above the goal keeper’s hands. Next thing I know, I was on the ground with all my teammates, everyone piling on top of each other, celebrating our victory.”
Marielle represented the country as one of the Philippine Malditas, competing in international competitions and being named team captain in 2005 during the SEAGames, which she calls one of her proudest moments. “We played in front of thousands of Filipinos at the Marikina Stadium,” she recalls. “It was such an honor to play in home soil with your family, friends and countrymen cheering you on.”
She was also given the opportunity to learn more about the sport she loved and develop her skills in South America and in Spain, something she says taught her as much about life as it did about football. ” Just being able to experience playing football in another country, living away from my family and overcoming the challenges of being on my own because of my passion for football gave me the courage and confidence that helped me grow as an athlete and as an individual.”
To have the opportunity to organize a symposium for Women in Sports at @PWU_Manila, meet extraordinary women athletes and share my own sports journey with everyone is truly a blessing.. Celebrating women’s day by inspiring and empowering women!! #blessed #malditas #empowerwomen #pinaypride #mac2groupmanila #pwupatriots #goforsweep #jeunesse #womensmonth A photo posted by Marielle Benitez (@mariellebenitez) on
Obstacles and Opportunity
“I’ve had two serious injuries in my football career,” Marielle shares. “Back in college, I broke my fibula during a training camp in Taipei, just two weeks before my first ever SEAGames Tournament. I was devastated. I remember people telling me that I’d never be able to get my game back after a serious injury.”
But rather than discouraging her, these people only spurred her on. “Being the competitive person that I am, that challenged me. I wanted to prove them wrong. I knew that from the time I got surgery and started my therapy, I had to keep pushing myself to come back stronger. And I’ve been able to do that and succeed. So, even when I tore my ACL, I knew what it would take to recover and get back on the pitch.”
The experience taught her a lot about herself and about what was needed to succeed in life. “Injuries or obstacles get me frustrated but I’ve proven to myself that as long as I’m willing to take a step back, recover and put in the hard work, there’s no reason that I won’t be able to achieve my goals.”
And Marielle keeps netting those goals as they come up. Immediately after graduating, she was offered the opportunity to start the sports program for the Philippine Women’s University. “I took it right away because it gave me a chance to do work that is connected with sports,” she says.
“I enjoy being able to share my experiences as an athlete and be able to help the student athletes succeed in their sports and academics. It’s always fulfilling to see the athletes graduate because you’re able to watch them grow and develop into well-rounded individuals from the time they enter as a freshman.” And as PWU’s athletic director, in charge of all the university’s sports activities and varsity programs, she’s in a prime position to help other girls achieve their dreams.
Girls Got Game: Giving Back
Part of what drives Marielle is the opportunity to give other girls and women the opportunities and benefits she’s reaped from having a solid background in athletics.
“Sport has given me experiences and opportunities that definitely changed my life. It was because of football that I am able to proudly represent the Philippines in international competitions, whether in Asia or Europe. I was given an athletic scholarship because of football. I am able to coach young kids, give leadership talks and share my experiences to aspiring young athletes. Because of my experiences as a football player, I have been given the opportunity to work as a sports analyst and television host for Abs-Cbn Sports and Action and Balls Channel. I am also a football brand ambassador for Mizuno Philippines. And because of my passion for sports, I am fortunate to hold a position at Philippine Women’s University as head of the Sports Development Program.”
When I met Marielle, she was at the Girls Got Game sports camp, which gives preteen girls the opportunity to develop a love of sports and an appreciation for the values it teaches (like teamwork, determination, and sportsmanship). Day 2 was football day, and Marielle was asked to give the MVP talk to inspire the girls to pursue any love of athletics sparked during the camp.
“It’s always a privilege to be able to share my experiences as an athlete to young kids, especially girls,” Marielle says of the experience. “I give leadership talks and football clinics hoping to inspire kids to participate in sports and believe in themselves. Also, as a performing artist for the Bayanihan, the National Dance Company of the Philippines, I teach young kids to appreciate our culture through music and dance.”
This isn’t the only way she’s giving back to the sport that has given her so much, though. “Well, I’ve started coaching Under 11 year old kids for a tournament over the summer and it’s something I’ve enjoyed doing. I’m also looking forward to coaching a women’s team in the near future. It’s a good opportunity for me to share everything that I’ve learned throughout the years and help develop women’s football in the country.”
The Benefits of Football and Life Lessons Learned Through Sports
“Football allows you to keep an active and healthy lifestyle,” Marielle says. “It’s a total body workout. Football teaches teamwork and camaraderie. It teaches you to trust your coaches and teammates, on and off the pitch. It allows you to enjoy the sports and have fun with your friends. Football teaches women to be strong; physically, mentally and emotionally. It challenges you to overcome difficulties and builds your confidence. It also teaches you to be passionate. Women who are passionate and confident will always believe in themselves, work hard and succeed in achieving their goals, whether in sports or in life.”
When asked about what the sport and her career in athletics has taught her, Marielle is frank and to the point. “Well, I always say that the person that I am today is definitely because of the lessons and experiences I’ve been through as an athlete. My three best lessons would be:
1. “Be passionate—To always love what you are doing. I’ve learned that by being passionate in the things that I do, it keeps me motivated and inspired to work hard and always give my best.
2. “Never settle—To always strive to become better than yourself. I’ve learned that it’s always good to challenge yourself because there’s always space for improvement.
3. “Bounce back—Never be afraid of trying and failing. Many times I’ve missed important shots or have gotten injured and missed important games and tournaments but I’ve learned that what really matters is the ability to bounce back, to be able to recover from my injuries, learn from my mistakes and get back on track.”
What’s next for this athlete and dancer turned TV host and sports analyst? “I plan to continue doing the things that I love doing. Hopefully, in the process, I am able to inspire and encourage others to get into sports or in the arts and pursue their dreams. And maybe in the near future, I’ll be able to put up an academy for sports, culture and the arts at our NBB Farm property in Tagaytay.”
To learn more about Marielle, follow her on Twitter and Instagram as @mariellebenitez and like her Facebook fan page. For more information on Girls Got Game, check out our previous article on the program and its co-founders, like GirlsGotGamePH on Facebook, and follow @GirlsGotGamePH on Instagram. You can also check out www.girlsgotgame.ph.