Jaja Santiago’s collection of trophies is very impressive.
She was the hottest recruit in high school before emerging as Season 79 University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP) Best Attacker, Best Scorer and Best Blocker. The following year, she was named as Most Valuable Player (MVP) after leading National University (NU) to a deep run in the Final Four.
Soon, she joined Foton in the Philippine Superliga (PSL)where she won the MVP in the 2016 Grand Prix over their imports, Lindsay Stalzer and Ariel Usher.
Since then, she was unstoppable.
She became one of the only seven Filipinas who campaigned in the FIVB Women’s Club World Championship, a tournament that served as her gateway to an international career. In one fleeting instance that shook the entire volleyball world to its very foundation, Santiago unleashed a rocket of a spike straight into the face of Italian libero Imma Siressi, who was caught unaware by the power, speed and intensity of that attack.
The Filipinas succumbed to Italian champion Pomi Casalmaggiore, but Santiago’s kill served as the basis of scouts from around the world to groom her for international stardom.
She decided to return to NU and the PSL as well as campaign for the national team in the 29th Southeast Asian (sea) Games in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 and the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018.
With her impressive performance in the international stage, Ageo Medics decided to tap her as reinforcement in its campaign in the prestigious V.Premier League.
A strong season prompted her to return the following year and led the Saitama-based squad to a bronze medal finish, a historic feat in Philippine volleyball since she became the first local player to win a medal in the international stage.
True enough, Santiago has it all.
But her victories are not just limited inside the court.
She has been winning off the playing court as well.
She considers this “victory” as her sweetest downfall.
It is the chink in her armor that turns a powerful 6-foot-5 spiker into a giddy teenager.
And if she will have it her way, she wants to keep this massive victory to herself for the rest of her life.
‘Love is a choice’
More than being teammates at Foton, which is now known as Chery Tiggo, Santiago and Maika Ortiz are best friends.
They may be the same, but it’s their differences that make them click.
While the 24-year-old Santiago comes in as the fun-loving, easy-go-lucky type of player, Ortiz is the reserved and quiet person who is four years her senior. The former University of Santo Tomas and Philippine Air Force middle blocker won’t utter a word for no reason and you have to be extra special if you want to enter her world.
Santiago doesn’t have problem with that.
Yes, they may be different, but their differences make them a perfect pair.
“We complement each other,” Santiago, who is on a break from her Japanese stint, told Daily Tribune.
“We are in a happy and strong relationship right now.”
Women’s volleyball, at least in the local setting, has an unspoken rule that teammates should not enter into relationship.
For coaches, having two players madly and deeply in-love would serve as a hindrance to their goal of winning a title.
But Santiago doesn’t agree.
“Love is a choice,” she said, adding that their partnership — inside and outside the court — had led the Tornadoes to a string of bronze medal finishes in the PSL while making an appearance in a training camp in Japan in 2017 and the SEA Games.
“I am much tougher when I’m in a relationship. I see to it that I am loving, caring, understanding and — most importantly — honest. I don’t let my emotions get into the way of serious competition.”
“I am a competitor and would stay this way whether I’m in a relationship or not.”
Far from perfect
But their relationship wasn’t perfect.
Actually, it was far from perfect.
Santiago knows that making it work requires a lot of hard work and dedication, especially now that she’s playing in a country that has a flying time of five hours from Manila.
Still, they are trying their best to make it work. After all, a serious relationship is not magic; it is like a plant that you have to shower every day with love, affection and care to blossom into a beautiful garden.
And Santiago is willing to do that for the sake of the person very close to her heart.
“Love is everything. It is very powerful. Sometimes, it makes you happy. Sometimes, it causes a lot of pain,” Santiago said, adding that she got the surprise of her life when Ortiz flew to Japan to be with her in the final stretch of her campaign.
“Every time my love gets hurt, I feel double the pain. But I’m willing to endure that because I’m in-love. I think that’s the real meaning of love; withstanding everything, even if it already causes you a lot of pain.”
She said Ortiz’s effort in making it work is also unquestionable.
And the mere fact that she went out of her way and flew to Japan just to see her reaping honors for the world to see is already a mark that what they have is something deeper and more sincere.
“I get touched when my significant other shows how much she loves and cares for me through her actions,” Santiago said.
“We are still far from perfect, but we’re making it work every single day. What I’m looking for a partner is someone who is tall, loving, caring and, above all, loyal.”
“I think she has that.”
Sure, Santiago’s collection of accolades from the UAAP to the PSL and Japanese league is already overflowing.
But her biggest victory wasn’t displayed in her trophy room.
It is embedded deep in her heart.
And, hopefully, she carries her sweetest downfall for the rest of her life.