Then there were 19

MANILA, Philippines — It’s the Philippines’ largest delegation of Olympic athletes in 17 years as a contingent of 19 nine men and 10 women are staking their claim to glory in the extraordinary Tokyo Summer Games destined to go down in history as the most turbulent quadrennial event ever with the specter of COVID-19 threatening to bring gloom to the Land of the Rising Sun.

On the shoulders of the 19 athletes rests the hope of finally capturing the country’s first Olympic gold medal, an accolade that has been as elusive as catching a shadow in 21 appearances in the world’s greatest sports spectacle since making its debut with a single contestant, sprinter David Nepomuceno, in 1924. The medal tally shows a collection of three silvers and seven bronzes with women’s weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz the only podium finisher in the last 25 years.

Diaz, 30, is vying in her fourth Olympics in Tokyo. She was a rookie Olympian in 2008 at 17, the country’s flagbearer in 2012 and a silver medalist in 2016. Now, Hidilyn seeks a golden breakthrough in Tokyo. So do her 18 Olympic teammates, all of whom nurture dreams of hitting paydirt which comes with a reward of P33 million and a house and lot. Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) president Rep. Abraham (Bambol) Tolentino said this is the year of reckoning, the moment of truth where the country has the best chances of a gold rush with gymnastics floor world champion Caloy Yulo, women’s featherweight boxing world champion Nesthy Petecio, current US Women’s Open golf champion Yuka Saso, Diaz and everyone else capable of writing history.

If numbers are a rule, Tolentino’s forecast could prove to be on the money. There’s a special meaning to 19 with the first and last single digits reflecting a new beginning and a strong finish. In numerology, 19 suggests success, knowledge, wisdom and breakthrough. It’s a prime number divisible by only number one and itself. Number one represents traits of bravery, independence and dynamism while number nine symbolizes benevolence, humanitarianism, sympathy and refinement. Together, the numbers one and nine suggest the beauty of a new beginning on the horizon and is a sign of success. The past failures are no longer in the equation. What is important is the track of a bright future paved by the achievements of the present. In Tokyo Olympic terms, it augurs well for the Philippines’ fighting 19.

Only five of the 19 landed in Tokyo from the Philippines with the rest flying in from training camps all over the world. Checking in from Manila were taekwondo’s Kurt Barbosa, golf’s Juvic Pagunsan, rower Cris Nievarez, shooter Jayson Valdez and women’s weightlifter Elreen Ando. From overseas came pole vaulter E. J. Obiena, Diaz, runner Kristina Knott, swimmers Luke Gebbie and Remedy Rule, judo’s Kiyomi Watanabe, women’s golfers Saso and Bianca Pagdanganan, skateboarder Margie Didal and boxers Eumir Marcial, Carlo Paalam, Irish Magno, Yulo and Petecio. The average age of the athletes is 25.1 years with Saso, 20, the youngest and Pagunsan, 43, the oldest.

Tolentino said with more women than men in the Philippine contingent, it’s a challenge for the male athletes to step up. Female power has been on the rise since only women bagged the country’s four gold medals at the 2018 Asian Games with Saso, Pagdanganan, Diaz and Didal conspiring to reap the harvest. But Barbosa, Nievarez, Obiena, Marcial, Yulo and Paalam struck gold in the 2019 SEA Games so the males are also in line to make a splash in Tokyo. And that’s not counting out Valdez, Ando, Knott, Pagunsan, Gebbie, Rule, Watanabe, Magno and Petecio.

Chef de mission Mariano (Nonong) Araneta said never in the Philippines’ history of participating in the Olympics has the country been bannered by world champions and in Tokyo, it will be the first. Over the last five Olympics, the Philippines has sent an average of 15 athletes participating in an average of 7.8 sports. The Philippines was without a medal in 13 Olympics and is second in the world in the category of countries with the most Olympic medals but no gold. Malaysia is No. 1 with 11 medals and no gold while the Philippines is No. 2 with 10 gold-less medals.

Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairman William (Butch) Ramirez said government has spared no expense to prepare the athletes for Tokyo. Since 2016, PSC has spent an estimated P2 billion, funding close to 100 athletes from 18 sports attempting to qualify for the Olympics. Tolentino said the delegation could’ve easily reached at least 20 if not for the pandemic.  The canoe-kayak team, for instance, failed to participate in the qualifiers when an athlete tested positive for the virus. The wrestlers couldn’t get visas to compete in the Bulgaria qualifiers. There were close calls in fencing, cycling, surfing, karate, swimming and athletics.

Tolentino cited four factors in assembling the biggest batch of Olympic athletes since 2004. “First is the close coordination with PSC, second is government support, third is the private sector’s confidence in the new POC mandate and finally, the momentum of our performance at the 2019 SEA Games where we won the overall championship,” he said.

Nievarez is the first Filipino to compete in Tokyo as he’s drawn to figure in the men’s single sculls heats on July 23. Then, it’s Petecio’s turn to battle in the women’s featherweight boxing Round of 32 the next day. Yulo is also scheduled for the men’s qualification, Rule in the 100-meter butterfly heats and Barbosa in men’s 58 kilogram taekwondo that same day. Marcial and Magno will make their debut on July 25 as will Valdez in the 10-meter air rifle qualifications. Didal and Diaz will go for gold on July 26. Watanabe tries her luck in women’s 63 kilogram judo and Ando vies in women’s 64 kilogram weightlifting while Rule swims in the 200-meter butterfly heats and Gebbie in the 100-meter freestyle heats on July 27. Yulo will be back for the men’s all-around final on July 28. The next day, Magno takes a bow in women’s flyweight boxing and Pagunsan tees off in Round 1 of men’s golf. Gebbie returns for the 50-meter freestyle heats on July 30. Obiena and Paalam see action on July 31 while Yulo will shoot for the stars in the floor exercise final on Aug. 1. Knott will run the 200-meter distance and Yulo will be in the men’s vault final on Aug. 2. If Petecio gets lucky, she’ll be in the finals on Aug. 3 as will Obiena and Knott. Saso and Pagdanganan begin their quest for gold on Aug. 4. Saso, Pagdanganan, Marcial and Magno will perform in the finals if they make it that far on Aug. 7.

Diaz, who will become the first Filipina four-time Olympian in Tokyo, summed up what it takes to succeed at the big stage. “Accept ko ang pressure to go for gold,” she said. “I tell myself I can do it. I stay connected with God, doing yoga to take away stress, sundin ang diet ng aking nutritionist Jeaneth Aro and build mental toughness in weekly on-line sessions with my sports psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad. To expect a good result, kailangan ng focus, tapos work out in a positive environment with healthy food, proper rest and recovery and good training. Enjoy the moment, do your best and leave the rest to God.”