At 43, Gamarra doesn't look like he has an ounce of unwanted fat on his lean, lithe frame. He still adheres to a daily routine that would probably drive men half his age to tears, waking up at 5.30am and training six days a week - two days each for swimming, biking and running. 'It has become a habit,' he says. 'I get up without an alarm - even on Sundays. The only difference is that I take an afternoon nap on weekends.'
Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn that Mr Gamarra is not just a guy with a sporting disposition - he has been a serious jock since he was a young boy growing up in Lima, Peru. At 10 he took up swimming to keep his asthmatic brother company, and it wasn't long before coaches spotted his natural athletic ability.
Mr Gamarra was also gifted at soccer, and had legitimate hopes of becoming a professional player. But in South America, being good at football isn't enough - you need to be a boy genius before the clubs take a second look - so he focused on swimming instead. He made it to the national swimming team, in which he excelled at the 200 metres and 400 metres freestyle events.
He was 11 when he became the youngest person to break the one-minute barrier in the 100 metres freestyle. When he was 18 he finished second in the South American championships but never made it to the Moscow Olympics in 1980 because the country's selection criterion was based on the top qualifying times from the previous Olympic Games, and his best times didn't match those.
His best ranking was 42nd in the world but, 'I was a clean forty-second,' he says, alluding to the fact that he never took performance-enhancing drugs. 'At that age I considered it, but my father said absolutely not. In those days you couldn't make money as a swimmer, so my career was over and I went to university in 1980.'
That same year he took part in his first triathlon - which entailed a 1.5km open water swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run - and finished third. Because of his swimming background, Mr Gamarra completed the first-leg swim ahead of everyone else before being reeled in by the top two finishers. These days, he still finishes the swim section in the lead pack - he was the winner in his age group at a recent biathlon event at Sentosa.
The good thing about working in a top hotel, says Mr Gamarra, is that he's able to do some on-the-job training, as it were. 'I work in a place that has all the facilities and because I have no set regimen, I can take the opportunity to go for a swim when I have some free time,' he says. He also climbs the Ritz-Carlton's 32-storey staircase to build up leg strength and overall stamina whenever he needs to intensify his training routine before competing in an event.
'I think I ended up being an athlete because I was a lousy student,' he says with a laugh. 'My parents were happy that I was doing something I excelled at. Being involved with sports at a very young age gives you a tremendous discipline. I had to wake up at 5.30am, go to school, then go training - I was always eating breakfast in the car. Also, from 10 to 18, when I stopped competitive swimming, I never got into trouble.'
Even as he travelled the world as a hotelier, Mr Gamarra continued to participate in triathlons. Nowadays he restricts himself to four events a year - a 'rule' set by his wife Christine. He also makes it a point to participate in location-specific events - something he can only do in a particular city or country. That's why he has taken part in the Boston Marathon (twice), the San Francisco Marathon and also scaled Mount Fuji - taking four hours to go up and 45 minutes to run down it.
When he got a posting to Hawaii, he joined an outrigger canoe club and became extremely adept at outrigger racing in the open sea. 'For me, there's no experience like it,' he says. Apart from being in close proximity to whales, sharks and dolphins on a regular basis, Mr Gamarra also experienced the rare thrill of watching a whale give birth. 'The thrill of being in the ocean and in such amazing contact with nature - it was a religious experience.'
Mr Gamarra's swim coach in Peru had a big influence on his sporting life. 'When he decided to enter the Ironman Triathlon - the Mount Everest of triathlons, comprising a 4km swim, 180km bike ride and full 42km marathon - in Hawaii, he quit his job and dedicated one year to do it,' says Mr Gamarra. 'When I'm 49, I'm going to take a year off to train for the Ironman. I don't want just to do it - I want to do it in the best possible way.'
The thrill of the race still gives him a rush, he says. 'For me, it's the competing, getting your gear ready the day before, waking up on the morning of a race - I truly enjoy the fact that it's an individual sport. In a hotel, it's a team thing but in a triathlon, you're relying on yourself.'
Mr Gamarra adds: 'I don't practise social sports because my job is already very social.'
When he was 16, he competed in the South American swimming championships in La Paz, Bolivia, which is situated some 3,600 metres above sea level. Although he didn't win a medal, his coaches found that his teammates were significantly slower, while his times were hardly affected by the high altitude. Scientific tests later showed that Mr Gamarra's heart is proportionately larger than the rest of his body. And somehow, that seems appropriate.
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Source: The Business Times Singapore