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Photographs by Rio Deluvio for The Daily Tribune @tribunephl_rio CARLOS Yulo, Hidilyn Diaz, EJ Obiena, Eric Cray Eumir Marcial and Kim Mangrobang contribute to the medal harvest of Team Philippines in the 31st Southeast Asian Games.

When the mushroom cloud dissipated in Hanoi, one athlete will be remembered as the epitome of Team Philippines’ successful participation in the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games — Carlos Yulo.

Yulo turned the biennial meet into his own show as he clinched five gold and two silver medals to underscore a performance no Filipino athlete had done in such a long time.

Yulo, who has been training under the guidance of Japanese coach Munehiro Kugimiya in Tokyo, cornered the gold medals in the individual all-around, floor exercise, rings, vault and horizontal bar apparatuses while settling for the silver medal in parallel bars.

Then, he powered the squad composed of Jan Gwynn Timbang, Juancho Miguel Besana, John Ivan Cruz, Justine Ace de Leon and John Matthew Vergara to a silver medal behind the host country in team event.

His achievement is the best ever by any Filipino athlete in the SEA Games.

Prior to the Hanoi meet, Rolando Albuera holds the distinction of being the best Filipino gymnast after clinching five gold medals in the 1979 SEA Games in Jakarta.

Former Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairperson and newly-elected Batangas Representative Eric Buhain, for his part, is regarded as the best Filipino athlete in the SEA Games after winning five gold medals in the swimming competition of the 1991 Manila meet.

The last Filipino to emerge as SEA Games Most Outstanding Male Athlete, however, was Miguel Molina, who scooped four gold and a silver medal in the 24th biennial meet in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand in 2007.

Yulo said his strong performance is part of his promise to his mother, Angelica, that he will dominate the SEA Games following a forgettable stint in the Tokyo Olympics last year.

“I promised her that I will do well in the SEA Games,” said the 21-year-old dynamo who has been training in Japan for over two years.

“But I have to apologize because I didn’t get to sweep all seven gold medals. Next time, I want to win all events. What’s the point of competing if I will not set a goal of winning in all? Maybe it sounds crazy or impossible to some people, but I want to challenge myself.”

“Anyway, I’m happy with what I achieved.”

Strong fourth

But Yulo’s dominance is just the tip of the victory iceberg of Team Philippines.

The Philippines, in fact, emerged as No. 4 on the list of nations that won the most number of gold medals in this prestigious conclave that was held under the cloud of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was the target that sports officials had earlier eyed but it was nonetheless decent enough.

For some time during the 12-day sports spectacle, the Philippine even looked poised to finish third overall behind host Vietnam and Thailand but Indonesia made its way up and tiny Singapore even threatened to dislodge the Filipinos from fourth place.

A last-minute gold rush helped the Philippines keep Singapore at bay with golds from mainly boxing and billiards guaranteeing its position in the leaderboard.

When the curtains fell, the Philippines had a tally of 52 gold, 70 silver and 104 gold medals.

Vietnam was unreachable with a mighty haul of 205-125-116 while Thailand was runner-up with a final count of 92-103-136 and Indonesia third with 69-90-81.

Fifth and sixth were Singapore (47-46-73) and Malaysia (39-45-90).

The topnotcher in terms of gold medal was Yulo while the dancesport duo of Ana Leonila and Sean Aranar also made a killing with two apiece and another gymnast, Filipino-American Aleah Finnegan, copping two gold and two silver medals.

Triathlete Kim Mangrobang, bowler Merwin Tan and billiards queen Rubilen Amit had two each.

As expected gymnastics was the winningest among about 38 national sports associations that fielded bets to the 12 to 23 May sportsfest that will be staged by first-time host Phnom Penh in Cambodia in 2023.

Track and field was bannered by Kayla Richardson’s century gold, Eric Cray’s 400-meter hurdles, Clinton Bautista’s 110-meter hurdles, Willie Morrison’s shot put and EJ Obiena’s record-setting mark in pole vault.

Billiards also had gold each from Carlo Biado in the 10-ball and Johann Chua in the 9-ball to go with Amit’s twin kill while boxing was led by Eumir Marcial’s gold in the middleweight, Ian Clark Bautista at featherweight and Rogen Ladon at flyweight.

Hidilyn Diaz sparkled in weightlifting, as expected, but she was challenged by fellow Olympic champion Supanich Tanasan in the 55 kg class.

While Diaz’s strong showing earned the sport’s top billing, also making her presence heavily felt was Vanessa Sarno, who crushed the opposition in the -71 kg.

Diaz and Sarno and are being targeted as major contributors when Paris hosts 2024.

Chief of mission Ramon Fernandez said he is truly proud with the performance of the athletes.

“I’m happy and I’m satisfied with the performance of our athletes. These Games are truly about them,” said Fernandez, also a commissioner of the PSC which bankrolled the participation of Team Philippines.

“I congratulate all the athletes and coaches for such an impressive feat.”

Heartbreakers

Missed golds were in women’s pole vault and, yes, men’s basketball with Gilas Pilipinas bowing to many-time punching bag Indonesia.

Gilas’ downfall in SEA Games came during the last day of competitions and it felt like a dagger in the heart owing to the country’s fascination and devotion to basketball.

If football is a religion to most SEA countries, basketball was to the Philippines.

The defeat came at the hands of Rajko Toroman, the Serbian strategist who once called the shots for the Philippines.

Though acting in an assistant and consultant’s capacity for Indonesia, Toroman knew what Philippine basketball is all about.

In fact, during crucial plays, including those that happened during the endgame, it was Toroman — and not head coach Milos Pejic — who called the shots for the Indonesians.

Beefed up by 6-foot-10 Marques Bolden, who played for Duke in the US NCAA and Cleveland Cavaliers in the National Basketball Association, Indonesia rumbled its way to an 85-81 win to bag its first ever SEA Games cage crown.

Still, the fourth-place finish overall was impressive given the training conditions majority of the Filipino athletes underwent owing to the pandemic.

Fernandez, also a commissioner of the PSC, was hands-on in his role as caretaker of the 900-strong Philippine delegation with PSC chairperson William Ramirez closely monitoring from his headquarters in Manila.

“Our performance in bringing home 52 gold, 70 silver and 104 bronze medals in placing fourth overall in the medal standings was a good finish despite the various challenges our national athletes had to face amid the Covid-19 pandemic before competing in Vietnam,” Ramirez said.

“It would have been a very good finish had we converted 50 percent of our silvers (to gold) and bronzes (to silver).”

He pointed out that funding training programs to develop elite athletes for international competition was quite expensive.

“You need money for coaches, both local and foreign, airfare, transportation and hotel for international exposure to season them, plus the logistical support like proper nutrition, sports psychology and medicine for athletes discovered abroad or locally,” Ramirez said, thanking the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation for helping them finance the training and participation of Filipino athletes.

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