[YEAR-ENDER] THE FILIPINO SPORTS IGNITION: Championing the pandemic with stories of glory from Filipino athletes

By Diana Salonoy, Mark Angelo Mañez, Arvin Migallos, DM Fetalvero, Jostle Pilayre, Rob Andrew Dongiapon, Roy Raagas, Ryann Yap, and Winlei Kim Castro


Perhaps one of the most remarkable years in Philippine sports, 2021 was a year of fulfilled greatness for the country. After a pandemic-ravaged 2020, this year breathed new life, bounteous campaigns, and history-making successes from our athletes. Truly, it was a coming-out party for the Filipinos. 

Not only did the year reap the nation some incredible triumphs on the international scene, but it also showcased a bunch of rising stars for Philippine sports as young phenoms across the board made their own mark alongside grizzled Filipinos who, similarly, made the year as fruitful as it has been. 

Some dreams materialized, some bid goodbyes, some came to light once more, and some made moments to remember forever. Here are ExplainED PH’s top 10 sports tales of the year. 


10. Youth-led Gilas Pilipinas' solid 2021 campaign

PHOTO: CNN Philippines

With its youngest and tallest crew on the full roster, Gilas Pilipinas solidified its performance throughout the year after having a strong performance in the 2021 FIBA Asia Qualifiers last June in Angeles University Foundation Gym in Pampanga.

Despite the odds, they managed to dethrone Korea twice at our home turf, featuring a dagger-three made by SJ Belangel at the first game and a balanced outing by the young guns in the second meeting.

Gilas cadets also managed to dominate their ASEAN rivals Indonesia with a 76-51 performance at the bubble. They swept the tournament qualifiers together with Jordan, China, and Lebanon having the 33rd overall rankings in the FIBA.

The Philippine squad also made an impression on the world stage, despite being slipped by Serbia to 83-76 in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, as they matched toe-to-toe with one of FIBA's Top 10 using a young core led by big men Kai Sotto and Ange Kouame.


9. A Coming-of-Age Tennis Superstar

PHOTO: Rappler

At 16 years, 7 months, and 8 days old, nothing can stop Alex Eala from rising in the world tennis scene.

The young Filipina sensation made great strides this year after adding one title after another on her decorated cabinet. In January, Eala bagged her maiden pro title at the ITF World Tennis Tour, upsetting 28-year-old Yvonne Cavallé-Reimers from Spain in a 5-7, 6-1, 6-2 win. The second-ranked ITF junior then smashed her way to her second Grand Slam crown after ruling the French Open girls’ doubles with Russian pair Oksana Selekhmeteva. The win was her second following the 2020 Australian Open.

And what better way to cap her conquest than completing a double title haul in the junior grade A tourney in Milan — first by surviving the girls’ doubles final with American partner Madison Sieg, 6-4, 4-6, 13-11, then by dominating the girls’ singles event, 6-3, 6-3, over Nikola Bartunkova.


8. PH Pool Scene’s Renaissance 

PHOTO: PSC-POC Media

With the likes of legendary Filipino pool masters Efren Reyes and Francisco Bustamante now at their careers’ sunset, new names have to rise up and continue the country’s dominance in the world pool.

And among them, Carlo “The Black Tiger” Biado. 

The 38-year-old former golf caddie at Villamor Air Base ended the country’s 27-year U.S. Open Pool Championship drought after he shackled up Singapore’s Aloysius Yapp, 13-8, and secured the country's second title at Harrah’s Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.

His title run is nothing short of beyond incredible. As one of the tournament’s seeded players, he started his campaign with three impressive blowouts including an 11-1 smothering of Finland’s former world champion Mika Immonen. Despite getting tripped by Spaniard David Alcaide, 11-6, this didn’t deflate Biado as he continued his long and arduous climb.

Skipping the majority of the losers’ bracket, he then plastered Daniel Schneider (11-3), World Cup of Pool partner and compatriot Jeff de Luna (11-6), and Wroclaw 2017 World Games silver medalist Jayson Shaw (11-8) to book his spot in the winner-take-all Sweet 16 knockouts. There, Biado endured a couple of tight 11-10 decisions, that included getting back at previous tormentor David Alcaide and another compatriot in Johann Chua and further sealing his place in the Final 4 where he met Naoyuki Oi of Japan (subsequently beating him, 11-9).






7. Philippines' Uprising in ESports

PHOTO: The Mindanao Journal

2021 was a jam-packed year for Filipino ESports athletes as they proved that the Philippines will not be left out from the competitive scene.

The all-Filipino Team Secret Valorant lineup of Jessie Cristy “JessieVash” Cuyco, Jayvee “DubsteP” Paguirigan, Jim “BORKUM” Timbreza, Kevin “Dispenser” Te, and Riley “Witz” Go, and coached by Gilbert “Gibo” Sales showed quite a Cinderella run in the Valorant Champions Tour 2021 - Champions in Berlin, finishing at 5th-8th place while pocketing $40,000 (Php1,000,000+) as cash prize.

Filipinos also lived up to expectations in the MLBB Pro scene as Bren ESports (Karl “KarlTzy” Nepomuceno, Allan “Lusty” Castromayor, CJ “Ribo” Ribo, David Charles “FlapTzy” Canon, Angelo Kyle “Pheww” Arcangel, Ejhay “Ejhay” Sambrano, Mico “Coco” Sampang, and coached by Francis "Duckeyyy" Glindro) became M2 World Champions after riding their lower bracket streak all the way to the finals.

In the same year, Blacklist International (Dexter “DEX STAR” Alaba Mark “Eson” Gerardo Edward “EDWARD” Dapadap Jhonmar “OhMyV33nus” Vilaluna Danerie “Wise” Rosario Kiel “Oheb” Sorianowon  Salic "Hadji" Iman and coached by Kristoffer “BON CHAN” Ricaplaza) reigned in the M3 World Championships to solidify the country's grip as the strongest in the world of Mobile Legends ESports.

Blacklist International also acquired the Filipino CODM Champs, Ultimate E-Pro, composed of John “JaBen” Benedict Julio, Edgar Martin “Tin” Yap Motoza, Neil Isaac “F1ex” Perez, Kenn “Kensh1” Ortiz, Abraham Jose “Eiji” Agbing, and Averson “Skred” Salaya who eventually won the CODM World Championships Stage 5 Eastern Finals to make history as the first ones to bag the title.



6. Rise of a Filipino Pole Vault Legend

PHOTO: GMA News

EJ Obiena, who was disappointed with his 11th-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics, showed he still has more to offer by smashing multiple Asian records in various international events. 

Coming off weeks after Tokyo, EJ eclipsed a new personal and national record of 5.91m in the Paris Diamond League last August 28. Obiena's 2021 didn’t end there after setting 5.93m in the 17th Golden Roof Challenge in Austria, breaking Igor Potapovich's 5.92m Asian record. And as of December 28, Obiena sits at the sixth spot with his 1,373 points in the Pole Vault World Rankings. 

This year’s journey of 26-year-old Obiena was also not free from controversy, from technical issues on his last attempt at the 5.80-meter mark in the Olympics to a recent rift between the athlete and the Philippine Athletics Track And Field Association (PATAFA). Beyond these, one can pick up several lessons from Obiena’s career that are worthy of emulating.


5. Swinging both Katipunera and Samurai hearts 

PHOTO: The Japan Times

2021 also turned out to be big for Philippine golf with Yuka Saso leading the country’s exuberant presence in ladies’ golf. The 20-year-old San Ildefonso, Bulacan-born parbuster swung home the country’s first and only U.S. Women’s Open golf title with a three-hole walk offf victory over Japan’s Nasa Hataoka at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, California.

The 2018 Asian Games double gold winner started with a few wobbles early on, before taking the lead midway in the 284-par (71-par/round), 6,486-yard annual event. Not to be outdone, Hataoka slowly rose and forced the playoff carding a 3-under-68. 

Saso and Hataoka went tooth and nail in the first two playoff holes before the former miraculously sunk her third shot in the last playoff hole and secured the US$1 million champion’s share. Only months after, she punctuated a strong finish in the Tokyo Olympics after ranking 9th in the women’s golf category.

While her decision to eventually drop her nationality for Japanese citizenship has saddened the sports community, the legacy Saso has brought to the Philippine contingent on international golf will never be replaced.  




4. A Value of Redemption 

PHOTO: Rappler

Filipino gymnast Carlos Edriel Yulo found his redemption arc as he vaulted his way to one gold and one silver in the men’s vault and parallel bars apparatus finals of the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Kitakyushu City, Japan, last October.

Fueled by his disappointing stint in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the world champion did not want to repeat his past showing as he executed a 14.916 for the vault and 15.300 for his parallel bars performance.

In an interview after the event, the 21-year-old reflected on his recent victory as he will aim to push himself more in future competitions.

“I am extremely happy today. I did my best. All the hard work paid off, but still, it's not satisfying for me yet […] The Tokyo Olympics... I will never forget that feeling and that experience. I will use that in every competition. I will remember it every time.”


3. A Legend Coming to an End

PHOTO: Complex.com

For many Filipinos, Manny Pacquiao was not just an icon or a generous philanthropist among others — he was a boxing hero. At 42, Pacquiao hung his gloves this year as the people’s champ chose to embark on a battle unlike any of his wars inside the ring throughout his 26-year career. 

In his final hoorah, a WBA Super Welterweight title showdown against Cuban Yordenis Ugas, Pacquiao looked a shell of his former self, ultimately showing signs of father time before succumbing to the 35-year-old Cuban via unanimous decision loss that panned out to be the curtain call for the only eight-division world champion in history. 
 
Pacquiao punctuated his illustrious career with 62 wins, in which 39 off knockouts, eight losses, and two draws, with world championships from the 115-pound flyweight division, all the way up to the 154-pound junior middleweight class — an unprecedented feat that augments his case as the sport’s greatest of all-time. He was also the oldest welterweight champion ever, snagging the same belt he fought for in his last fight from Keith Thurman in 2019 at age 40 before his two-year inactivity due to the pandemic that caused him to be declared a “champion in recess” earlier this year. 


2. Boxing’s Renaissance

PHOTO: Manila Bulletin

As one curtain closed, others emerged. 2021 felt like a rebirth of a sport that, historically, has always been our bread and butter. 

Rose almost in the same juncture as Pacquiao in the late ‘00s to early 2010s, Nonito Donaire reawakened the flash that made him the future Hall of Famer that he is today. The 2012 fighter of the year orchestrated two statement victories this year, stunning the world in May through his vintage left hook in his fourth-round KO win over the then-undefeated Nordine Oubaali to capture the WBC bantamweight title, becoming the oldest bantamweight titlist in history — a record formerly held by another Filipino Gerry Penalosa who earned the distinction at 35 years old. Donaire, 39, later defended the belt in December against a fellow Filipino Reymart Gaballo as the latter tasted a crippling liver shot from the champion in the fourth round to keep the former’s undisputed title aspirations alive.  

Meanwhile, Johnriel Casimero, holder of the WBO iteration of the bantamweight belt thus making him one of Donaire’s targets should he pursue to unify all the belts, continued his rise in the boxing scene with a win over erstwhile Donaire conqueror Guillermo Rigondeaux, albeit in a lackluster affair. IBF junior featherweight champion Jerwin Ancajas also withstood another year with his crown in tuck, stretching his reign to five years with a contrastingly thrilling unanimous decision win over Jonathan Rodriguez in April. Other contenders on other divisions also flourished in the year, most notably Mark Magsayo, earning PBC’s knockout of the year honor with his 10th round stoppage of Julio Ceja in the Pacquiao-Ugas undercard, earning him a shot at the WBC featherweight champ Gary Russell Jr. next year. 

Yet, the most significant of all boxing victories happened in Japan as the country’s Tokyo Olympians stamped glory in the sport. Eumir Marcial (middleweight), Carlo Paalam (flyweight), Nesthy Petecio (women’s featherweight) showcased what Filipino boxers can offer on the Olympic stage. Though still seeking a golden Olympic glory in the sport, Marcial and Paalam nabbed bronze, and silver respectively for the Philippines, while Petecio became the first-ever Filipina to bag a medal in the Olympiad, settling for silver after dealing a close defeat against Japan’s Irie Sena in the finals. 


1. Tale of a Golden Arc 

PHOTO: Fox News

With all the drama that arose due to the COVID-19 disruptions and a bunch of other life challenges, this year saw the birth of a weightlifting fairy who gave her name, Hidilyn Diaz, and the Philippine nation a historic gold experience.

On the 26th of July during the Tokyo Olympics, Diaz snagged the Women’s 55 kg. event after lifting a record-breaking 224 kilograms to finally put an end to the Philippines’ 97-year drought of a gold medal at the world’s largest sporting event.

After falling short on her previous Olympic stints, Diaz bagged the silver medal finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics, of which sparked the winning flame to exceed her lifting limits leading to Tokyo. Looking back on her humble beginnings and toughest losses, the burdens she carried have only made her Olympic triumph much sweeter. 

The 30-year-old athlete used to live in a small town in Zamboanga, having a not so luxurious life as a young’un who had her father as breadwinner on being a tricycle driver and a part-time farmer. Diaz had to borrow training apparatuses or operate using homemade tools to practice weightlifting, which began the route of her Cinderella story as she worked her way up and became an achiever in various weightlifting contests, up until her Olympic gold medal arc recently.

Diaz may come down in history as one of the greatest athletes to ever wave the Philippine flag. Beyond that, however, she gave pride, hope, and inspiration to a country that has been shattered by pandemic-driven setbacks. The stories of glory from Diaz to the rest of the Philippine contingent proved that with the Filipino spirit, no amount of burden is impossible to carry.


HONORABLE MENTIONS: 

• Jaja Santiago’s championship run with Chery Tiggo (PVL) and Ageo Medics (Japan V-Cup). 
• Japan B-League Imports. 
• Jordan Clarkson as 6th Man of the Year 
• Jalen Green as No. 2 overall draft pick in the NBA.
• Jerrold Mangliwan in the 2021 Para Games wheelchair event.


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