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Against all odds, Filipino para-athletes raise PH banner with pride

Hoping to replicate our historic success in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, a delegation of six para-athletes participated in the Tokyo Paralympic Games held last end-August to early September. Having a roster composed of seasoned veterans and first-time Paralympians, the delegation finished with finals appearances by swimmer Ernie Gawilan and wheelchair racer Jerrold Mangiliwan, who both finished sixth in the men’s 400-meter freestyle-S7 and the men’s 1,500-meter-T52 race, respectively.

Among the team were Paralympics rookie Allain Ganapin—the first taekwondo para-athlete to represent the Philippines—and Gawilan, the first para-athlete to win a gold at the Asian Para Games. Now having had experiences of representing the country in the world’s biggest stage, Ganapin and Gawilan share their upbringing in their respective sports and how they prepared for Tokyo.

Breaking down barriers

For them both, sports changed their lives in ways they could have never imagined. 

Ganapin was often bullied for his appearance, which took a hefty toll on his self-confidence at a young age. This narrative, however, was flipped as he made his way through the ranks inside the dojo after his best friend and his former Physical Education teacher introduced him to taekwondo. He shares, “Dati po mahiyain ako…sobrang baba ng self-confidence ko. Lagi ‘kong tinatago ‘yung amputated arm ko at parang ‘di ko kayang magtayo ng magisa, ‘di ‘ko kayang maglakad [kung saan] maraming tao.”

(I used to be shy and my self-confidence was very low. I would always hide my amputated arm and I could not stand up for myself. I also could not walk confidently in a crowd.)

Echoing Ganapin’s statements, Gawilan says he was no different. Before going to Davao, Gawilan never delved into sports of any sort while he lived in the mountains of Bukidnon. It was not until he swam in the clear waters of Samit Island that Gawilan first discovered his talent and love for swimming. He recalls his introduction to the sport, “‘Yung pinakaunang [coach] [ko] talaga si Mark Corpuz; siya ‘yung…nagintroduce sa’kin [sa] swimming. 

(In a sense, my first coach was Mark Corpuz; he introduced me to swimming.)

He continues, “Noong tinuruan ako ni coach Jud, ‘yung coach ko sa Davao, doon niya tinuro sa’kin ‘yung proper na [strokes]. Noong nakita ko na…gusto ko yung ginagawa ko sa swimming, pinagbutihan ko. Noong 2009…[nakapasok] ako sa national team ng [para-athletes].”

(When I was first taught by my coach in Davao, coach Jud, he taught me the proper strokes of swimming. When I noticed that I was enjoying swimming, I strived to do my best and I was able to join the national para-athletes team in 2009.)

Before becoming world-class athletes, both Ganapin and Gawilan’s journeys started off competing and training alongside abled-athletes. Gawilan explains that this actually propelled his success in the sport, “Malaking tulong talaga ‘yung napapasabak din kami sa mga regular athletes kasi nahahatak ‘yung skill namin.” 

(Being able to compete against regular athletes was a huge help as it challenged us to improve our skills.)

Similarly, Ganapin stresses that it allowed them to feel more welcome in their respective communities,  “Nung nagstart ako mag taekwondo at noong na feel ko na welcome ako sa team and sa competitions, parang di nila akong tinitignan ng mga tao as isang PWD athlete o Para Athlete.” 

(When I started out in Taekwondo, and when I started feeling welcomed in the team and in my competitions, they didn’t look at me as a PWD or a para-athlete)

Training amid limitations

When the Tokyo Paralympic Games were fast approaching, Ganapin shares that he was 14 kilograms (kg) over his 75-kg weight class, which he attributes to the lack of training during the lockdown. Knowing he had a lot of ground to cover, Ganapin and his team took to Inspire Sports Academy in Calamba, Laguna to intensify their preparations. “‘Yung training namin doon talagang three times [a day]. After [ng] qualifying event namin sa Jordan, four times [a day] kami para sa Tokyo.

(Our training there was strictly three times a day, and after the qualifying event in Jordan, it increased to four times a day to prepare for Tokyo.)

Ganapin stresses that while he prepared, he was looking forward to the tournament, “Syempre makikipag-compete ka doon [sa tournament], kukuha ka ng medal, [at ipapakita] mo sa kanila na naghanda ka.”

(Of course, you will compete at a high level to earn a medal and show everyone that you are well prepared.)

Gawilan’s training regime, meanwhile, was totally wiped out as he had no access to any training facilities. Although residing near bodies of water, he was forced to train on land for the majority of his Paralympics preparations and only returned to training inside the pool last May 9. “Nakakapag-swim naman ako; bahay ko kasi malapit sa dagat. Sa land training namin, conditioning lang; mahirap kasi na walang swimming eh, iba pa rin talaga ‘pag may swimming.”

(I was somewhat able to swim since I lived near the sea. Our land training consisted of conditioning only. It’s very difficult and different that I wasn’t able to actually swim.)

At the biggest stage

Before attaining success, athletes dream of having career-defining moments that solidify the grind throughout the journey. For many, that career-defining moment is representing the country internationally.

Despite the success of the Philippine contingent in the Tokyo Olympics, Ganapin discloses that the Paralympics team was unfazed, “Hindi po talaga kami nakaramdam ng pressure sa Paralympic team. Ang sineset lang po namin na goal is i-continue lang namin po ‘yung nasimulan ng Olympic team.”

(We really did not feel any pressure within the Paralympic team. Our goal was to continue what was started by the Olympic team.)

Throughout the journey of preparing and competing in the Paralympics, Gawilan shares that his most fond memory was performing well despite experiencing challenges of training amid the pandemic, “Siguro ‘yung pinakamaganda kong achievement talaga is ‘yung nakapasok ako sa finals. Tapos kahit na halos isang taon kami walang ensayo, nakarating parin ako sa top six sa overall sa 400-meter freestyle; kaya ‘di na rin masama kung tutuusin.”

(I would say that my best achievement is qualifying for the finals. Despite not having a year of training, I still reached the top six overall in the 400-meter freestyle. That does not seem so bad). 

Representing our nation while dealing with the challenges of a pandemic is a tremendous feat. Apart from bringing glory to the country, this can inspire many athletes across the country to follow the footsteps of Ganapin and Gawilan, and to compete at the highest level while defying the numerous odds stacked against oneself. 

By Miguel Robles

By Red Bernal

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