When Yuka Saso sunk those three birdies in the last six holes of the Orchard Golf and Country Club to win the Philippine Ladies Open by two strokes in January, those who witnessed her feat knew the then 16-year old amateur was ready for even bigger challenges.
A chip-in birdie on the final hole gave a glimpse of the Filipino-Japanese golfer’s steely nerves as she scored a 54-hole total of 209, beating Mikha Fortuna for the crown.
She was a cinch for an Asian Games slot from then, still a good seven months away from the quadrennial event that was to define her career at a very young age.
Come August and Saso was the toast of the Philippine Team coming home from Jakarta, Indonesia.
Saso went on to win an individual gold medal in the women’s golf event. Then she led two other teammates — Bianca Pagdanganan and Lois Kaye Go — in winning the women’s team gold medal.
Those two feats placed Saso in the upper echelon of the Philippines’ sporting greats as they were historic. Saso was the first Filipino to win both the individual and team gold medals in her event.
Those two mints by Saso also pushed the Philippines’ gold medal tally up to four — with one each won by weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz and skateboarder Margielyn Didal.
It was the first time the Philippines won this many since the 2006 Asiad in Doha, Qatar.
There had been two instances when the Philippines also won four gold medals in the Asian Games. Those were in 1986 in Seoul, Korea and in 1978 in Bangkok, Thailand.
The most gold medals the country had won in the Asiad was in 1954 when it hosted the Games for the first and last time in Manila with 14.
The country won five gold medals in the very first Asian Games in New Delhi, India in 1956. It won nine in Tokyo, Japan in 1958 and seven in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1962.
But the sporting world was different then as geopolitics was. The Asiad had yet to welcome the countries which broke away from and / or have been left orphans by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) which was then the only superpower country to have challenged the United States.
China was yet to rise fully to its present world status and potential, both in sports, economic and military strength.
So, it was special for the country to have achieved that much when the Games got tougher, thanks to Saso, Didal and Diaz — Philippine sports’ Powerpuff Girls.
Didal was a surprise gold medal winner. She did not expect to become part of the national team. All she wanted was to skate in a Cebu park while her mother sold street food.
Freedom then was when the police did not chase her gang of skateboarders or her mother and her food cart out of the park.
But Didal was a natural. She flew and floated and flipped and skidded. She burned wheels — small wheels, like the rest of the boys.
Didal was one of them. Her heart was with them.
So, when her Asiad victory gave Didal a voice, she pleaded against the occasional police chase of her group. She asked for a skate park for the Cebuano youth. She called for equal treatment of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender).
All wheels have to turn. Didal wanted them smooth.
Her life. Her family. Her sport. Her choices.
Her Asiad victory changed her life for the better. Her family is assured of a better life.
She can continue playing her sport no longer mindful of a skating ban. The local government of Cebu had built them a skate park.
She can now openly introduce her girlfriend.
Didal has come a long way.
Diaz also proved she needed no luck’s guidance to win her latest gold medal.
Unlike in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics when she waited for her more illustrious Chinese rival to fall to be able to jump from an assured bronze to a lucky silver medal, Diaz knew she had the Asiad gold medal in the bag this time.
She was that confident. That confidence also gave her a voice to lead all athletes when they needed one. She became their representative. She had chastised officials when they needed rebuke.
No longer meek, Diaz had become.
And for the year 2018, these women led the batch of Filipino sporting greats.
Manny Pacquiao — The former poor boy from General Santos City rose to become one of the world’s most celebrated boxers. He also achieved greater heights back at home, becoming a Senator after a short stint as a member of the House of Representatives. In July, Pacquiao stopped Lucas Matthysse to wrest the World Boxing Association (WBA) welterweight crown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Jerwin Ancajas — He made successful defense of his International Boxing Federation (IBF) super-flyweight crown thrice, marking an unforgettable year in his blossoming career. First, he stopped Israel Gonzalez of Mexico in the 10th round of their fight in Corpus Christi, Texas in February. Then, he convincingly won via unanimous decision over compatriot Jonas Sultan at the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California in May.
The year was not over yet for Ancajas in October as he defeated Alejandro Santiago of Mexico at the Oracle Arena in California in October.
Nonito Donaire, Jr. — A fifth round technical knockout win allowed Donaire to dethrone Ryan Burnett as the World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight champion, sending a message that he is still on the top of his game at the SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland.
Vic Saludar — A new World Boxing Organization (WBO) minimumweight champion rose after Vic Saludar dethroned Ryuya Yamanaka via unanimous decision at the Central gym in Kobe Japan.
Donnie Nietes — The veteran boxer retained his IBF flyweight title with a seventh round stoppage of Argentinian Juan Carlos Reveco in Los Angeles, California. The win stretched Nietes’ 14-year undefeated run. It was also his first fight in the US.
Ian Clark Bautista and Nesthy Petecio — Two Filipinos were named Best Boxers in the Feliks Stamm Boxing Tournament in Warsaw, Poland. Bautista won the men’s 52-kg division by beating Zarip Jumayev of Turkmenistan while Petecio took the women’s 57-kg championship when she outclassed Ornelia Wahner of Germany.
San Miguel Beer — The Beermen, the oldest team in the Philippine Basketball Association, won its fourth straight Philippine Cup stretching back to the 2014-2015 season.
Barangay Ginebra — The PBA’s most popular squad took the Commissioner’s Cup at the expense of sister-team SMB, denying the Beermen their chance at completing a three-peat that early.
Magnolia — In an unexpected twist, the Hotshots went on to win the Governors’ Cup to complete San Miguel Corporation’s donimation of the PBA.
Ateneo de Manila — The Blue Eagles won back-to-back UAAP (University Athletic Association of the Philippines) basketball championships, the last one at the expense of a game University of the Philippines — the premier collegiate league’s team to watch in the next season.
That the Eagles were prepared for the UAAP crown was evident even as early as June when they dethroned San Beda University Red Lions as the Filoil Flying V preseason tournament champions via a sweep.
San Beda University — The Red Lions were not to be denied, though, as they swept Lyceum in two games to clinch a third straight NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) men’s basketball title led by Finals MVP Javee Mocon.
Ray Parks — Before joining the PBA Draft, Parks won back-to-back ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) MVP award for Alab Pilipinas.
Alab Pilipinas — The Philippine representatives regained the ABL crown after defeating Mono Vampire at the Sta. Rosa Multi-purpose complex. The team became the third Filipino ballclub to win the crown after the Philippine Patriots in 2010 and the San Miguel Beermen in 2013.
RJ Abarrientos — The Shoot-Out contest of the 2018 FIBA 3×3 U-23 World Cup in Xi’an, China became his playgound as he walked out of the courts with the gold medal around his neck.
Petron — The Blaze Spikers started the 2018 Philippine Superliga tipped for a rare grand slam, more so when they won the PSL Grand Prix. But they were denied by rival F2 Logistics in the PSL Invitationals. Not wanting their rivals to gain any more bragging rights, the Blaze Spikers made sure the PSL All-Filipino — considered as the most important of all Cups — was theirs.
Creamline — Two championships — the Reinforced and Open Conferences — marked the newest member’s stint in the Philippine Volleyball League.
University of the Philippines — The Lady Maroons won the PSL and PVL collegiate volleyball titles, sending notice of its strength in next year’s UAAP wars.
Mixed Martial Arts
Geje Eustaquio — Learning from his previous defeat, Eustaquio avenged his loss to rival Kairat Akhmetov with a unanimous decision to win the interim ONE flyweight world championship at the start of the year. It was in June when he became the undisputed champion when he edged Brazilian Adriano Moraes at the Studio Center in Macau.
Joshua Pacio — A unanimous decision win dethroned Yoshitaka Naito and made Pacio the ONE strawweight champion in Jakarta, Indonesia in September.
Eduard Folayang — A unanimous One lightweight triumph over Amir Khan at the MOA Arena made Folayang the first two-time champion in any division in the history of any MMA organization.
Kevin Belingon — Ending his former tormentor’s winning run that spanned eight years and 14 matches, Belingon claimed the ONE bantamweight championship by beating Brazilian Bibiano Fernandez in Singapore.
El Joshua Carino — Foreign riders lorded it over the Le Tour de Filipinas when it was opened to the international field. But Carino made sure a Filipino hoisted his bike in triumph this year when he became only the third local rider to win the crown after Baler Ravina (2012) and Mark Galedo (2014).
Ronald Oranza — In one of the most dominant performances in the race, Oranza won the 2018 Ronda Pilipinas by dethroning Jan Paul Morales.
Team Manila — The bets from the Big City defeated former champion Central Helmet Xplosion, 5-1, to win the 2018 Pony World Series 18-U Girls Softball Championship crown in Hemet, California. It was the first-ever back-to-back title in the tournament by the Philippines and by an Asian country.
Tanauan — The Batangas entry won the country’s first ever Senior League Softball World Series crown after beating Southwest, 7-0, in Lower Sussex, Delaware.
Miguel Tabuena — What a fitting finale the Centennial celebration of the Philippine Open had when Tabuena pulled off a memorable victory via sudden-death over Thai Prom Meesawat at The Country Club in Sta. Rosa, Laguna. It was the second Open crown for the Filipino champ.
Arnel Mandal — He was the lone gold medal winner for the Philippines in the Wushu Sanda World Cup in Hangzhou, China.
Philippine Team — Four gold medals from Daniel Parantac (men’s taijjiian), Agatha Wong (women’s taijijian), Thornton Quieney Lou Sayan (men’s nandao) and Johnzenth Gajo (men’s junior changquan) marked the country’s participation in the 1st Asian Traditional Wushu in Nanjing, China last November.
John Marvin Miciano — Unbeaten in nine rounds, Miciano claimed his International Master title by ruling the premier U-18 division of the Asian Youth Chess Championship in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Meggie Ochoa — Wearing many hats, including championing women’s rights, Ochoa won the gold medal in the Abu Dhabi leg of the Jiujitsu World Tour held in London, the Ne-Waza women’s senior 49-kg division of the 3rd Jiu-Jitsu Asian Union (JJAU) Asian Championship in Aqtau, Kazakhstan and the women’s seniors 49-kg class of the Juijitsu World Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
Philippine Team — The Filipino paddlers captured golds in the men’s 200m and 500m 10-seater in the 5th Asian Dragon Boat Championships in Yunnan Province, China. Then in September, the team won five gold medals to capture the overall title in the 2018 International Canoe Federation (ICF) World Dragon Boat Championship in Gainesville, Georgia.
Melcah Jen Caballero — Clocking 22 minutes and 20 seconds in a 4-km course, Caballero won the gold medal in the 2018 Asian Rowing Coastal Championships in Hong Kong.
Philippine Team — Ten gold medals by the Nationals marked the first time the country won the mint in the Asian Para Games. The chess team accounted for five of the golds including four by Sander Severino while swimmer Ernie Gawilan accounted for the three golds won in swimming. It was truly a memorable experience for the Filipino paralympians in Jakarta, Indonesia.