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All fit to fight for the gold in the Tokyo Olympics, these sports champions have the best chances to do their country proud

The Olympic Games, which originated in ancient Greece about 3,000 years ago, reopened in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Since then, it had been cancelled only three times: in 1916 due to First World War, in 1940 and in 1944 due to Second World War. COVID-19 added to the statistic when it caused the cancelling of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Held every four years, the world’s preeminent sporting competition has been rescheduled this month in Tokyo. As of this writing, 10 Filipino athletes are officially going to the Olympics. Joining the first eight qualifiers (featured here with our US Women’s Open champion whose participation is yet to be announced) are Filipino taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa and skateboarding’s Margielyn Didal.

See also: Is The Tokyo Olympics Pushing Through? Here's Everything You Need to Know

Yuka Saso (Women's Golf)

By winning the recent US Women’s Open in San Francisco, California, Yuka Saso scored a historic victory for her country, the Philippines. She also qualified to compete in the Tokyo Olympics but excited as she is about this possibility, she would rather take things in stride. Her focus,
for now, are the eight tournaments still on the LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) calendar before the golf competition in Tokyo on 4 to 7 August.

Saso, 19, was born in San Ildefonso, Bulacan but moved to Japan at the age of four with her Filipina mother and Japanese father who would bring her to the golf course with him. She got interested in the sport and when she showed promise, her father brought her back to the Philippines so she can home-school and work on becoming a pro, which happened in 2019.

The first Filipino to win the US Women’s Open idolises Rory Mcllroy, developing an uncannily similar swing with the pro golfer from Northern Ireland. While Saso awaits an official announcement about her joining the Olympics, two other golfers can also qualify for the Tokyo Games: Bianca Pagdanganan and Juvic Pagunsan.

More from Tatler: Yuka Saso: 9 Things You May Not Know About The 2021 US Open Winner

Hidilyn Diaz (Weightlifting)

DIY concrete barbells, even broken and rusty ones can produce a champion; weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz showed everybody how by qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics. Born in the village of Mampang in Zamboanga City on 20 February 1991, the fifth of six children of the farmer/fisherman Eduardo and housewife Emelita picked up the sport on the influence of cousins who were all weightlifters.

From then on, she has won all the medals that she could win in both local and international competitions in the women’s weightlifting category, reaching almost the top with her silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now, the first and, so far, the only Filipina to ever win an Olympic medal is just one heave away from the gold.

While an Olympic gold currently holds her undivided attention, Diaz has looked to the future with concrete plans. In a podcast, she revealed that her next goal after Tokyo is to finish her business management degree at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. The degree will serve her well in the businesses she has put up, HD Cleaning Services and Komida Foods.

For now, however, nothing else matters but weightlifting. She also must maintain her weight. This means controlling her sweet tooth for cakes and chocolates. The 121-lb, 4’x11” weightlifter has left nothing to chance; even her hair must be kept cropped. The weightlifter and airwoman (she was recruited into the Philippine Air Force in 2013) is working hard, but not so much for her personal glory as for the pride she can give to her country with a gold. For again, she looks beyond herself in her sport and dreams of more weightlifters to follow in her footsteps.

Read more: Olympian Hidilyn Diaz Talks About Rock Bottom And Her Battle To Win The Gold

Cris Nievarez (Rowing)

The country’s bet for the men’s singles sculls rowing competition in the Tokyo Olympics learnt the rudiments of the sport in only three months. This rapidity is not depreciative of rowing, for Cris Nievarez’s immediate goals prove that the sport is far from being easy. The 5’11” rower from Atimonan, Quezon believes the sport requires perfection in both technique and endurance. As such, he is concentrating on improving on these two requirements while training for the Olympics.

Nievarez may have picked up the sport of rowing late in his athletic career but he has always been in sports since age 7. Basketball was his first game, competing in the Palarong Pambansa, where he also competed in the 400-metre sprint. 

In 2015, however, he was invited by townmate Justine Viñas to try out for the national rowing team. He did not know a thing or two about the sport but persevered to learn and at 15, became a rower. The switch must have been made easy because of the attraction the sport had on him.

The youngest of three children of a land caretaker (now deceased) and a homemaker, Nievarez initially had a modest goal: to play at the Palarong Pambansa. But today, upon his shoulders rests the enormous task of bringing back Philippine representation in rowing after the sport’s absence in the Olympics of 21 years.

Nesthy Petecio (Boxing)

If she could give 150 per cent to her training, Nesthy Petecio said she would. Focus is the only operative word now for the 28-year-old boxing champion and the country’s bet at the Tokyo Olympics in boxing, women’s featherweight division.

The boxer, born on 11 April 1992 to farmer Teodoro and housewife Prescilla, started training at age 7 in her hometown in Tuban, Davao del Sur. It would not be, however, until age 15 when Petecio would join the women’s national boxing team, not so much for lack of talent but rather the few opportunities in the country for female boxers. Petecio, however, is noticing a welcome development as more doors appear to be opening for women athletes.

The 5’2” athlete never stops raising the bar, never allowing herself to be mired in her current record. She approaches the Olympics with this mindset, telling herself that giving up is not an option until she wins the gold.

But she almost did, in 2018, with her big loss in the Asian Games. Her family, especially her father, a former boxer himself, inspired Petecio to bounce back and dedicate whatever victory she earns to him and to her best friend who recently died. Her family was also the first ones she called after learning the news that she made it to the Tokyo Olympics. Petecio goes to the Tokyo Olympics to represent the country together with three other boxers. Eumir Marcial, middleweight, was born on 29 October 1995, in Zamboanga City. His father Eulalio started training him when he was just six. Like many an athlete, he wanted to give up the sport after failing to qualify in the 2016 Rio Olympics; after all, he has a career in the Philippine Air Force to fall back on.

Fortunately, he listened to well-meaning family, friends and work colleagues and is now a top choice to bring home the gold. Irish Magno, women’s flyweight division, was born on 27 July 1991, in Janiuay, Iloilo. She began boxing at age 16, after discovering that she had the mistaken impression that the sport was exclusive to men.

Carlo Paalam, men’s flyweight division, was born on 16 July 1998, in Bukidnon. He worked as a scavenger when he was young but was recruited to join Cagayan de Oro’s boxing Images training programme in 2009.

Related: Muhammad Ali vs Joe Frazier: How "Thrilla In Manila" Became The Most Legendary Boxing Match in History

EJ Obiena (Pole Vault)

Because of COVID-19, the Philippines almost lost its representative to the pole-vaulting competition in the Tokyo Olympics. No, EJ Obiena did not contract the virus but it dampened his spirit enough to seriously think of quitting. He was in China for training in January 2020 where the threat started and then in Italy a few months later for a back treatment just when the virus gripped the country so severely.

Making matters worse, the Olympic Games was cancelled, leaving him with no reason to stay in Italy. But his coach, Vitaly Petrov, presented the situation to him differently. No matter the Olympics, Petrov encouraged the 25-year-old athlete to continue training to improve himself. Obiena stayed and trained in Formia, Italy.

The first Filipino athlete to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics after his 5.81 metres pole-vaulting jump in Piazza Chiari, Italy in September 2019, Ernest John Uy Obiena was, one can say, born to the sport. His father, Emerson, was a national pole vaulter; his mother Jeanette was a track-and-field athlete. As a young boy, he accompanied his father to his practices at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila. He attended Chiang Kai Shek College for high school and the University of Santo Tomas for college, competing for both schools in track and field. But pole vaulting was always there, waiting its turn.

The 6’2” tall Obiena would ultimately be immersed in pole vaulting, excelling to Olympic level. He approaches the competition with a strong hunger for the gold, a good sign as victory is for those who want it most.

Carlos Yulo (Gymnastics)

At the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics in Stuttgart, Germany, Carlos Yulo made Philippine sports history when he topped the men’s floor exercise. He became not only the first Filipino and Southeast Asian male to capture gold in this category but qualified as well for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, postponed for 2021 because of the pandemic.

The historic moment was watched by sports enthusiasts, locally and globally—but sadly, missed by the then-19-year-old’s parents Mark and Angelica. The couple must wake up at 5:30 am every day for work so staying up late is something they try to avoid.

Carlos Edriel Hollman Yulo was born on 16 February 2000 in Manila, the second of four children. He studied grade school at the Aurora A Quezon Elementary School and high school at the Adamson University on a sports scholarship. In 2016, he met Munehiro Kugimiya who came to the Philippines to train Filipino gymnasts. Seeing the potential in Yulo, the Japanese coach offered to continue training him for three years in Japan where Yulo now lives and studies at Teikyo University.

At only five years old, he watched the country’s top gymnasts train at the Rizal Memorial Stadium near their house and started doing acrobatics at the neighbourhood playground. His grandfather brought him to the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines (GAP) who accepted the now-seven-year-old as a protégé. According to Kugimiya, Yulo will reach the peak of his career in 2024 yet.

More golds can be gathered in three years by someone who believes in “just hard work” and reportedly trains for six to eight hours a day, six days a week.

Read more: Young Filipino Gymnast Carlos Yulo Is The Philippines' First World Champion

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