KUALA LUMPUR: Mary Joy Tabal fulfilled her promise of delivering the country’s first gold medal when she ruled the women’s marathon event of the 29th Southeast Asian Games Saturday morning in nearby Putrajaya City.
Tabal – the pride and hope of Barangay Guba, Cebu City – masterfully took control of the cloudy weather and difficult terrain to cross the finish line after two hours, 48 minutes and 26 seconds and finally dominate the 42-kilometer race where she had a forgettable performance in the previous SEA Games and the Rio Olympics last year.
She knocked the crown off the head of Natthaya Thanaronnwat of Thailand and Hoang Thi Tanh of Vietnam, who settled for the second and third places with 2:58:17 and 2:55:53, respectively.
“Kada hakbang ko kanina napakabigat kasi parang bitbit ko lahat ng paghihirap ko bago lumaban,” said Tabal, who turned emotional as she waves the Philippine flag while doing her victory run amid the cheers of hundreds of migrant Filipino workers.
Ninenerbyos ako nung umpisa pero tuwing naririnig ko ang hiyawan ng mga Pilipino sa ruta, lumalakas ang katawan ko.”
Shortly after crossing the finish line, no less than Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (Patafa) president Philip Ella Juico gave her a bottle of water as a sign of support and recognition to her talent, hard work and sacrifices leading to the most prestigious race in the region.
Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairman William “Butch” Ramirez immediately sent his congratulatory message, saying that Tabal’s performance should be the start of the gold rush for Team Philippines.
“We’re happy at the PSC board,” said Ramirez, who went all out in supporting the athletes from their training, preparation, equipment up to the actual competition. “I hope we can get more gold medals along the way.”
But the celebration didn’t last long.
The ecstasy of winning has yet to die down when reports reached Juico that two of his prized athletes – Ernest John Obiena and Patrick John Unso – bombed out of contention after crashing with injuries a day before leaving for this tree-dotted Malaysian capital.
Obiena, the European-trained pole vault specialist who is being groomed to see action in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury on his left knee while Unso fell with a pulled left hamstring, completely sidelining them for the rest of this 11-nation competition.
Juico admitted that the development is a major setback, but they all have to move on and rally behind other athletes who vowed to carry the torch like two-time Olympian Eric Cray, Kayla Richardson, Christopher Ulboc and Trenten Berram, who will see action when the athletics events go full blast Tuesday.
“We win some, we lose some; that’s the way of life,” said Juico. “We are all saddened by the development, but we have to live with it. It’s just that the kid (Obiena) really wanted to win and is so determined to bring honor to the country.”
At any rate, the loss of Obiena and Unso shouldn’t affect the morale of other athletes who will be marching to the war zone as the competition goes full blast following very colorful opening ceremonies at the sprawling Bukit Jalil National Stadium late Saturday here.
The fancied men’s basketball squad will finally start its quest for 18th gold medal as it takes on Thailand while its women’s counterpart tackles Singapore at the Malaysian Basketball Association (Maba) gymnasium.
Also seeing action are national boxers Charly Suarez, Mario Fernandez, Felix Eumir Marcial and Marvin John Tupaz as well as the national bowlers, who will be under the tutelage of four-time World Cup champion Paeng Nepomuceno.
Wushu artists will also be competing together with the table tennis aces, rugby stalwarts, archers, football players, swimmers and water polo campaigners.
Ramirez said he already relayed the good news of Tabal’s victory to President Duterte through Presidential Management Staff Bong Go.
“Whatever our medal standing would be, the important thing is that the athletes should be inspired to give their all,” he said. “Kung 50 (gold medals) man yan, 100, or 35, sa akin eh hindi ko na titingnan.”