The strength of Joy Wong’s survival story is the immense power found in her journey to personal healing

By Eric Nicole Salta | Photos by Wowie Wong and courtesy of Joy Wong

What makes Joy Wong such an inspiration—the kind that brings people from all walks of life together—is that she flawlessly mixes the personal, professional, and spiritual into one strong narrative you can’t help but get carried away. And I haven’t even met her yet.

A few weeks ago while chatting with a former colleague, Wong was brought up in the conversation as a potential profile for the site. After all, anything that involves beating cancer demands attention. But defeating the disease and finishing an Ironman 70.3? That’s quite special.

So while I haven’t met our subject yet, I spoke on the phone with her about what I wanted to do for the story. Listening to her speak gave me a sliver of who she was. It was immediately apparent that she has the guts, the aplomb, and the absolute insanity to take on a life-threatening disease as well as a sport that even men are afraid of.

Yet despite all the power that’s bubbling underneath her voice, Wong’s self-assured calmness reaches the breadth of anyone who comes in contact with her—physically or aurally. 

Perhaps its her 14-year experience as chief executive igniter and president of People Ignite Organizational Development and Training, Inc., a company that trains, plans sessions, and organizes team buildings, that has anchored her public displays of strength, wherewithal, and possibly even pain.

Then again, Wong’s path to her moment of reckoning was forged through the connections she’s made since undertaking, and eventually overcoming, cancer. Her winning moments were bolstered by an army of allies and patrons willing her to significantly move towards regeneration and renewal.

From her husband Wowie (who also happens to be her official photographer) and two children Angelica and Paolo Angelo to her eldest brother Dr. Marvi Villareal and good friend Gail Consolacion as well as her coaches Kaye Lopez (former Multisport.ph editor) and Stephen and Moi Yamoyam, Wong wove through the wilderness, walking on the path of personal healing to cross the finish line of the 2017 Ironman 70.3 Philippines in Cebu.

Before, I would spend my money on clothes. My lifestyle changed. Now, my money would go to registration fees, energy gels, and bike accessories, among others

And what I’ve read from her responses tells me that this woman is all about resilience and decisiveness. It’s a lesson that gives strength to anyone who may need it. And in this current climate, we could all pick up a few pointers from this unwavering woman.

Tell us about your battle with cancer and the healing process you went through

I was 27 years old, just on the second year of our marriage, when my OB-GYN advised me on a fateful day in June 2004 that I had cancer, tagged as Gestational Trophoblastic Disease (GTD). GTD occurs in about one out of 1,000 women, and it accounts for less than one percent of all cancers that start in a woman’s reproductive system. At such a young age, I looked at my doctor, and asked her, Will I have kids?’ She answered, ‘We can talk about that later. For now, I need you to understand how urgent it is that you go through chemotherapy sessions.’

With husband Wowie

Back then, I would see my ordeal with cancer as a burden. Today, I see it as one of the greatest blessings-in-disguise of our lives because we have been granted both Angelica and Paolo. Wowie and I have now become advocates of legal adoption and pro-life [causes], especially since there are thousands of Filipino babies being abandoned and surrendered in orphanages upon birth.

How did you get into triathlon? How did everything start for you?

Three things triggered me to jump into the triathlon journey: turning 40, Wowie’s gift, and two triathletes in my life.

The first trigger was when I woke up one morning in May 2015 and remembered that I will be turning 40 soon. People say that life begins at 40, but at that moment, I got so worried. I thought, ‘I’m very sedentary and I’m not very healthy. I don’t want to get old too fast, too soon.’ It was a big a-ha moment for me.

The second trigger was when Wowie gave me a step tracker as a gift back in August 2015. I never thought I could actually do 8,000 to 10,000 steps a day. I thought, ‘Wow, tracking my steps is fun!’ I noticed that I was becoming happier and more positive during days that I would move more and track my activities.

Lastly, my eldest brother Dr. Marvi Villareal and my good friend Gail Consolacion inspired me to start my Ironman 70.3 journey. I recall what my Kuya Marvi once told me when he heard that I wanted to do Ironman 70.3 Philippines: ‘Joy, tandaan mo ito, wala kang best. Huwag mong isiping may best ka. Dapat lahat aralin mo. I-train mo. Kung hindi mo kaya ang eight hours and 30 minutes na race, huwag ka ng sumali.’

Joy’s inspiration: her 93-year-old grandmother Nanay Goreng Villareal

That’s how my kuya shows his TLC or tough love and care for us. Gail, on the other hand, navigated me through the ins and outs of the sports–its adventures, risks, costs, training hours, sacrifices, politics, and milestones.

You finished your first Ironman 70.3 in Cebu earlier this month. What made you decide to do the country’s biggest race? 

Two reasons: First, I want to celebrate my second try in life as a cancer survivor. It crossed my mind when I was just starting this journey, ‘I hope that someday, I could share my story and who knows it may give hope to another person.’ I thought then that my sickness was a roadblock. Now, it’s one of my biggest blessings because it made me a warrior.

Second, joining it is on my bucket list. Seeing my brother Doc Marvi and my friend Gail finish strong in their own races, I told myself, ‘Kung kaya nila, baka naman kaya ko din! Lakasan lang talaga ng loob.’

What was the most challenging part of the race?

It must be the swim leg. It was the toughest swim I have ever experienced. At first, the water seemed calm and inviting as we looked from the shore, but what seemed peaceful from the shore turned panicky and chaotic in the actual swim. I was kicked in the face three times and had to put on my goggles back several times. I was praying constantly ‘God, protect me.’ There were swimmers who panicked because of the strong current below and the strong waves above. It felt like for a time, there was stampede in the water, and swimmers were in survival mode.

With Jedi Gail Consolacion who inspired her to race Ironman 70.3 in Cebu

What kind of support did family and friends provide?

I have three support groups that are truly important: my family, coaches, and supportive friends-turned-prayer warriors.

As I was about to cross the finish line of my first Ironman 70.3, I was looking for just two faces: Wowie and Angelica. They have been going with me in all of my races for the past two years. Wowie as my official photographer, nutritionist, encourager (and sometimes sponsor for what I need to buy) and Angelica who inspires me to do my best. She once told me, ‘Mom, what’s important is doing your best, and not always being the best.’ Also, my ultimate inspiration is my 93-year Nanay Goreng Villareal, my grandma, with whom I celebrate each time I finish a tough race.

My second support group would be my coaches. Coach Kaye Lopez as my triathlon coach and both coach Stephen Yamoyam and coach Moi Yamoyam as my swim coaches.

There were swimmers who panicked because of the strong current below and the strong waves above. It felt like for a time, there was stampede in the water, and swimmers were in survival mode

Gail introduced me to coach Kaye. ‘She’s hands on. She’s not too tough and not too soft; I think she is just right for you.’ Gail’s assessment is right. What I appreciate about her is that she’s consistent, disciplined, and focused. She also gives me a training program that considers both my schedules, races in the future, and my overall capacity as a triathlete.

Coach Steph (under the guidance of coach Moi) helps me strengthen my arms and legs, and he closely monitors my pace performance during training. This dynamic duo brothers have genuine love for their students. They teach techniques that make me more efficient in both the pool and open water.

Flanked by husband Wowie and daughter Angelica

Glenn Colendrino and the Primo Cycle guys like coach R1 (Richard Unlayao) ensure that my bike is race-ready and in its best shape. Coach Paolo Wong is my running buddy. He teaches me sprint and speed runs.

In Cebu, all my coaches were monitoring where I was, what my time was, and they prayed! The best decision I’ve made in this journey was to have coaches who helped me discover my potential. Finally, I am blessed with friends and co-igniters around me who genuinely wish for my safety and success.

Was there anything on your road to the 70.3 that proved to be significant? That is, did you find out things about yourself had you not gone through this experience?

If I can do it, anyone can. I was never sporty and did not join any sports league in my entire school life. I was not even physically active. But you know what? I realized that I set so many limits and boundaries on what I cannot do, and that became my own roadblock. When I welcomed the idea of celebrating life and trying something I thought I could not accomplish, I decided to just let go, drop my defenses, and just do it. With the help of people who believed in what I can do, I surprised myself.

For two years now since I started, my relationship with God has deepened in a way that I feel most connected with Him during my prayer time, most especially when I am out there in the ocean, on my saddle, or on the road running. I also feel closest to Wowie as he has become my biggest support system and fan. Life, the second time around, is after all sweeter.