Obdulio Mateo Manalon Mineque was born in Quezon City, Philippines, on Sept. 21, 1950, to Obdulio Sr. and Lourdes; he was the third of six children. His father, a lawyer, worked as the postmaster general and his mother was a school principal.
When he was little, his mother called him “Chico,” Spanish for “small boy.” The nickname stuck. Growing up, Chico was heavily into sports. He liked martial arts, but excelled at baseball; as a teenager, he made the Philippine junior national team. He was good with his hands and taught himself to play piano and guitar, which he taught to his younger sister Wyn.
While studying architecture at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila during the civil unrest of the late ’60s and early ’70s, Chico became increasingly involved in student activism, joining the protests and revolts against the Ferdinand Marcos military regime. In 1974, he was detained and tortured. After his release, his family urged him to flee. With a bag full of dirty clothes, Chico landed in Toronto where his older brother Placido lived. He never believed he would stay—despite the predictions of a fortune teller who had once told him he would move to a foreign land and marry there.
After a string of odd jobs, Chico found employment as an orderly at Lyndhurst Hospital, where Lynn Brownlee worked as a receptionist. In 1978, Chico invited her to a party. “At first I thought, who is this guy?” says Lynn. “But he was the life of the party, always cracking jokes. That’s what attracted me.” They were married within a year, and in 1980, their first son was born: Che, named for Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. A second son, Kyle, was born in 1984.
Chico, a skilful artist, woodcarver and builder, founded an art and design firm. He put the boys in baseball, but it was in the pool where they shone; Chico himself couldn’t swim. “He was the worst of the worst swimmers,” says Che, laughing. Soon, the brothers were swimming in the competitive program at Crescent Town Swim Club, in multicultural East York.
In 1989, the family moved to the small town of Bancroft, three hours north of the city. Chico planned to work in Toronto during the week and join his family on weekends. “We had this idealistic notion of leaving the rat race,” says Lynn. “But it didn’t quite work out.” Within a year, Chico’s business went under and Lynn, resuming her hospital job, began commuting into Toronto, braving snowstorms in an old Ford Pinto. “It was a really hard period,” says Che. But the boys got the country experience: “We ran in the woods and spent our summers in the river. It was complete freedom.” And there was a lot of swimming.
Fred Arzaga, who founded the Crescent Town Swim Club in 1981, provided Chico with over-the-phone workouts for the boys, who trained after school in a 12.5-m pool in a Bancroft hotel. On Saturdays, they trained in Toronto with Arzaga—Che in backstroke, Kyle in butterfly. Chico studied books and videos, immersing himself in the mechanics of swimming. His ease with young swimmers caught Arzaga’s attention. “If a child was crying he could calm them and motivate them to keep coming back. He always had a smile on his face,” says Arzaga, who hired him to coach the younger swimmers on weekends, despite the fact that he couldn’t swim. Chico would correct swim strokes from the deck.
In 1994, the family returned to Toronto so Che could enrol in an elite sports program. Chico found full-time work at a medical supply company. And he became more involved at the swim club, where many looked to him as a mentor. “I could go to Chico with my girl troubles, and he helped me with school,” says Shaan Dhillon, now 24, whose parents split when he was young. “He taught me carpentry and how to fix things. He was like a father.” Another of Chico’s former swimmers, Stevan Kalaba, is preparing for qualifying trials for next year’s London Summer Olympics, one of Chico’s proudest accomplishments.
On Sept. 19, the new swim season began. At 8:30 p.m., after practice, Chico headed home. Just after 10, Lynn looked out the kitchen window and saw Chico’s pickup truck in the driveway. She asked her son to get the door for him. Kyle found his father lying in the driveway where he had collapsed following a heart attack. He was 60.