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The GAME March 2024 cover story: Kim Fajardo

Setting The Standard: Kim Fajardo Has Mastered The Comeback

Kim Fajardo reflects on her career and tells The GAME how every twist and turn made her one of the biggest names in Philippine volleyball.

When Kim Fajardo was in high school, she was a spiker for the UST Junior Golden Tigresses. She was the finisher of the team; her job was to hit the ball to end a play and score. And like a striker in football, spikers often get the most attention. Kim admitted that she thrived in the spotlight.

Syempre gusto ko na sa spotlight ako,” she told The GAME.

But her coach at the time recognized something within Kim that she had not yet seen in herself. He wanted her to move from being the team’s spiker to the team’s setter — an entirely different role. With this switch, instead of waiting to make the final blow to score, Kim would have to recalibrate to spearheading the plays, and ultimately, setting someone else up for the spike.

When she was making the transition, she admitted, “Ayoko talagang tanggapin…The transition was hard. It was totally different.”

Despite her hesitation in accepting her new role on the team, her coach insisted that she stick with it. For three months, Kim revealed that her coach would push her to her limits and at times, even yell at her or kick her out of training. Tensions flared — but they didn’t last.

Five months after taking on her new role, learning the ropes, and playing as a setter, she realized, “Unknowingly, natanggap ko na.”

Kim Fajardo would go on to become one of the best setters in the country. She’s won 13 ‘Best Setter’ Awards in her experience playing in major tournaments such as the UAAP and the Philippine Super Liga (PSL) — individual awards that she sees simply as bonuses to her three UAAP championship titles with the DLSU Lady Spikers, and her three PSL titles with the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers.

But more than the accolades, Kim shared that the difficult transition from spiker to setter that she had to endure allowed her to discover a new side to herself. Instead of wanting to be the star of the team, she realized, “Dapat gusto mo din yung mga bagay na nakakatulong sa team…Iisipin mo yung mga kasama mo, hindi na lang sarili mo. Doon pa lang sa court, kailangan ka mag-adjust.

Kim realized early on that being a setter is about creating a deep understanding of one’s surroundings — being hyper-aware of where your teammates are, where your opponents are, how the ball is moving, and where spaces on the court are. It’s about giving yourself over to ever-changing situations, moving with the flow, and being in a constant state of evolution.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, this realization not only transformed her abilities as a player. It would prepare her for a life she did not see coming — a life in the spotlight as a professional volleyball player.

Growing with volleyball

Kim Fajardo had a unique foray into the life of a professional athlete. This is simply because she, along with the other talented players who rose to fame during the same period, did not even know that she could become a professional athlete in the first place. Growing up, the professional athletes in the public eye mainly consisted of basketball players.

In fact, when asked what career path she originally had in mind for herself, she said, “Something in the arts,” and half-jokingly, “A chef.”

Kim reflected on this with laughter because looking back from where she is now, she could not be further from this line of work. Despite growing up taking inspiration from her father, who was a graphic designer, she knew deep down that her true passion lay somewhere else: in the world of sports. Thus, when the opportunity to play for the De La Salle University Lady Spikers came along, she pivoted and decided to take up Sports Studies instead.

But even though she was pursuing her true passion as a student at DLSU, she still assumed that after graduation, she would still hit the same wall; she would bid volleyball goodbye and find a different career path.

“Coming in as a rookie, I didn’t see it na ito ang magiging profession ko after college yet. Student-athletes kami, diba? So, laging student first. Habang naglalaro kami sa college, ang isip namin, kailangan namin mag-aral kasi after this, paano na tayo?

But, it wasn’t long after her first year with the Lady Spikers that Kim discovered volleyball could take her further than what she had originally foreseen. This vision of hers was first formed when the Philippine Super Liga (PSL) was founded in 2013, one of the country’s first corporate club leagues for volleyball. All of a sudden, picturing herself as a professional athlete, earning while doing what she loves, was becoming easier and more real.

“I saw na after college, meron nang pupuntahan yung mga volleyball players.”

The GAME March 2024: Kim Fajardo
Kim Fajardo reflects on her unexpected journey as a professional volleyball player.

Naturally, Kim still had her doubts. The PSL was definitely a sign that the sport was headed in the right direction. However, at the time, the UAAP was still the biggest stage for the sport, and all the players knew this. Fans were crazy for college volleyball, and it showed. They were quick to sell out arenas to watch UAAP matches — it was a hotter ticket than that of the other up-and-coming leagues.

However, the vibrant college scene is actually what would set up the professional scene for success. Filipinos started to crave more volleyball, and their passion for the sport found its way outside of the collegiate field.

Yung fanbase ng DLSU, nadala sa PSL noong pumasok kami sa league. But after some time, naging daily habit na ng mga fans. Pinapanood nila yung games everyday, pumupunta sa arena para makanood, at yung conference noon, tatlo in a year, so nagulat kami na inaabang na din yung pro league, hindi lang yung UAAP.”

Indeed, as Kim’s volleyball career was beginning to flourish, the sport was also beginning to ride a huge wave of momentum at the same time.

The Shakey’s V-League, which was formerly an inter-collegiate tournament, transformed into the Premier Volleyball League (PVL) and is now one of the top leagues in the Philippines, drawing more than 20,000 fans to their games, a dream come true for passionate players like Kim who have dedicated their lives to the sport. There was a path forward.

“It’s super rewarding,” she shared. “Noong una, hindi ko siya matanggap kasi we’re just playing, we’re just doing our jobs. Pero tuloy tuloy na siya, at maganda na ginagawa namin yung passion namin, tapos nakaka-earn din kami.

Yet, even though this was a dream come true that she didn’t exactly see coming, she later realized that, like everything else in life, being a professional athlete comes with its ups and downs.

The reality of the spotlight

Volleyball players in the Philippines are more than just athletes at this point. With the immense popularity of the sport, which has only grown all the more with the rise of social media, they have also become influencers, models, and pop culture icons. Not only do fans want to see them excel on the court, but they also want to know about where they eat, where they spend their vacations, and what they’re wearing. Kim Fajardo alone has 327,000 followers just on Instagram — not something she would have expected, especially given that just a few years ago, she didn’t even know she could be a professional athlete.

But, with the sport’s thousands of fans also comes a different kind of pressure that wasn’t easy for Kim to swallow.

Masarap din sa pakiramdam na people look up to us. But the other side of it is that hindi ka pwede makitang nakasimangot, at mahirap din siya in a way,” Kim shared.

“For example, after a game, talo ka, tapos maraming naghihintay sa labas, kailangan mag-smile. Mahirap din yun, ah...Pero sana alam ng mga tao yung dinadaanan ng mga players. Ang nakikita lang nila yung game, ‘di nila nakikita kung gaanong kahirap yung training namin.”

This is something that wasn’t easy for Kim to accept in the beginning. After all, as she said, volleyball players are just doing their jobs just like anyone else. But it can be hard for fans to see their idols as humans who can get burnt out or struggle with losses.

But once again, Kim had to find a way to navigate her surroundings. As she said, “Kahit saang profession, there’s always pressure. Kailangan mong masanay, go through it, play with it. Kasi if ‘di mo siya ma-accept, talo ka kaagad.

The GAME March 2024: Kim Fajardo
Kim is no stranger to the challenges that come with living in the spotlight, especially as one of the most well-known players in the Philippines.

Ever since she became the star player of the Lady Spikers, she has been living in the spotlight, whether she chose to be or not; she has become a role model to others, whether she wants to be or not. And thus, she decided to simply look at the positive side that comes with attention and pressure — the ability to inspire others.

Looking back at her many fond memories with her fans, she shared a story from one of the first ways she realized a lot of good can come from the position she’s in. “There was one day na nag-meet and greet kami sa La Salle, and may isang boy, mga 11 years old, na umiiyak kasi sobrang happy daw siya na nakita ako in person. Gusto niya daw maging gaano ako ka-composed at ka-mature sa court.

However, love from the fans can only go up to a certain point. The pressure doesn’t end when the players return to their team buses, away from the spotlight. Another huge part of the game is the internal pressure that comes from one’s team, coaches, and oneself.

Setbacks and comebacks

Professional athletes exist within highly pressurized environments. As the cliché goes, you’re only as good as your last game. Team owners, coaches, and all the athletes lining up to join the pros are always watching, and this is why every season, every game, every play is an opportunity for an athlete to showcase that they deserve to be competing among the best.

But what happens when an athlete, still in their prime years, can’t play at all? The pressure ramps up even more. Kim Fajardo knows what this is like perhaps a little bit better than others.

“It’s super rewarding [to play professionally]. But at the same time, the time will come na hindi ka na pwede maglaro. Syempre, magkakaroon ka ng injuries, or tumatanda ka at maraming nag-graduate na bagong players.”

Anyone who has been following Kim’s career knows that she speaks from experience. Injuries have forced multiple pauses at different points in her career. “Parang lahat, nakuha ko na, eh,” she said, reflecting on all the times that she’s had to take time off to recover — and there have been many, from ankle sprains to finger injuries. But it was her first major injury that was the hardest to overcome.

Throughout her college years, she played consistently. This is what turned her into a DLSU volleyball legend — but it also made her first major injury in the PSL a completely new experience. Playing for the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers, she injured her pinky finger after a hard block, which required double surgery, and she had to sit out for six months. She never had to sit out for this long before.

Ito yung first time in my whole life na mag-sit out ng ganun ka tagal, na wala kang pwede gawin. Bawal tumakbo, bawal mag-weights. It was hard. Kaka-start ng liga noon, tapos six months ako mawawala.”

Kim felt idle. In a field where every performance determines your value, how was she supposed to prove that she still deserved to be among the best? The volume of the pressure suddenly got even louder. But as the weeks progressed, she began to learn the value of patience and using the variables still within her control. Instead of spending six months ruminating, she decided to focus on her recovery. Instead, she decided she would make sure her comeback would be worth it.

The GAME March 2024: Kim Fajardo
Kim has faced many challenges in her career, but each one has helped her grow into a more composed and mature player on the court.

After fully recovering from her finger injury, Kim came back to the next conference with a refreshed mindset, ready to hit the ground running. “Pagbalik ko, ang isip ko, hindi ako makakatalo dito.”

Her team went on to win the conference title, and Kim was named Best Setter.

Since then, she has gone through several other major injuries that have also forced her to sit games out. But every setback has only fueled her fire even stronger, making her more and more eager for a comeback.

Mastering the comeback

When Kim was in the middle of that three-month struggle transitioning from spiker to setter, she did not realize that this was going to do so much more for her than allow her to become a better player on the court. More than this, she discovered how to adapt to her ever-changing environment — something she has consistently had to do throughout her life.

Ever since she was a rookie on the De La Salle University Lady Spikers, she has been thrown all kinds of changes, whether it was unexpectedly turning her passion into a profession or learning to deal with injuries.

With all of this, she has learned to master the art of the comeback. And, at 30 years old, she’s still not done with the inevitable cycles of change, and she probably never will be.

After more than 10 years of playing for the F2 Logistics Cargo Movers, Kim has had to make another huge adjustment in her career: moving to the PLDT High Speed Hitters after her former team disbanded.

Hindi ko in-expect na ganun ang mangyayari for me, kasi sinabi ko sa sarili ko, sa F2 ako magreretire,” she revealed. “Ngayon kasi, yun yung mahirap, transitioning sa ibang sistema.”

With this unexpected shift in her career, Kim admitted that even as a veteran in the league, she was nervous about the move. After spending 13 years with the same faces in the same team with the same system, suddenly, everything was different, and she was once again pushed to adapt.

Noong una, hindi ko kasi alam sa umpisa kung paano ako mag-aadjust kasi nga, ibang sitwasyon, ibang sistema, so kinakabahan ako noong una. Paano ako makakasama sa ibang tao?

The GAME March 2024: Kim Fajardo
More than becoming a force on the court, every step of Kim’s journey has shaped who she is away from the spotlight.

Well, if the ear-to-ear smile on Kim’s face throughout PLDT’s first few games in the 2024 PVL All-Filipino Conference, her first conference with her new team, tells us anything, it’s that the six-time PSL Best Setter has made the comeback she was hoping for, forging instant connections with her new teammates on the court, setting up killer plays, and playing with utmost confidence.

In fact, her teammates have even expressed what an asset Kim has been and praised the leadership she has exhibited. Indeed, her years of experience truly show on the court, even with a new team.

But more than who she is as an athlete, everything Kim has been through in her career as a volleyball player translates into who she is off the court.

“Skills are always there. Kaya mo siyang i-train, i-practice everyday. Pero ang pinaka bonus mo, pinakamatutunan mo dito, yung pakikisama sa tao. That’s the number one achievement na makukuha mo dito — your attitude na talagang ma-apply mo sa buhay, hindi lang sa paglaro.

Photography KIERAN PUNAY of KLIQ, Inc.
Creative Direction MARC YELLOW
Sittings Editor SID VENTURA
Shoot Coordination ANTHONY MENDOZA

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