On a cold and gloomy Saturday morning, Filipinos — Cebuanos in particular — woke up to an electrifying news.
Cebuana Olympian Mary Joy Tabal has just ended the country’s search for the elusive gold medal in the ongoing 29th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) with a heart-stopping performance in the women’s marathon at the Bukit Jalil National Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The 28-year-old Barangay Guba, Cebu City, native literally crashed the competition, winning the lung-busting, 42-kilometer race’s gold medal in 2 hours, 48 minutes and 26 seconds to give the Philippines its first gold medal in the biennial multisporting meet.
She was ahead by more than five minutes of her closest pursuer, Hoang Thi Thanh of Vietnam, who clocked 2:55.43 and erstwhile defending champion Natthaya Thanaronnawat of Thailand who settled for the bronze at 2:58.17. Thanaronnawat snatched the gold two years ago in Singapore.
Tabal’s victory set off frenzied celebrations on the internet from Filipinos in every corner of the world to certified sports fanatics and those who felt for the petite Cebuana who, only last June, was unceremoniously dropped from the national team and was told, “Ayaw namin sa’yo” (We don’t want you)” by the very same sports officials who were supposed to protect her.
“I went through a lot of hardships like in everything. I was just thinking about the need to win the gold because I do not want to disappoint the Filipinos again. I knew I had a good training and I just needed confidence to finish that race strong,” said Tabal in her post-victory official statement.
“Dinasal ko lang talaga. I prayed, ‘Last loop na lang. Please help me finish this’ (I just prayed hard. I prayed, ‘It’s the last loop. Please help me finish this’),” recalled Tabal, who broke down in tears while waving the Philippine flag after crossing the finish line.
She is best remembered as the embattled athlete who was ousted from the national team after having a rift with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa) before the official announcement of the national team’s roster bound for the SEA Games.
Patafa officials headed by Philip Juico accused Tabal of breaking the federation’s rules and regulations. They also accused her of leaving their fold voluntarily after the Rio Olympics where she became the first Filipina to compete in the women’s marathon.
The issue even reached Congress when House Deputy Speaker Gwendolyn Garcia of the third district of Cebu filed a resolution to investigate the issue between Tabal and Patafa.
Her gold medal finish yesterday drew many congratulatory messages from her supporters in Cebu.
Cebu City Councilor and deputy mayor for sports Eugenio “Jun” Gabuya Jr. told Cebu Daily News that he was very happy after learning of Tabal’s gold medal finish.
Gabuya, in his privilege speech during a City Council session, rallied the Cebu City government behind Tabal last June when he urged Patafa and the Philippine Olympic Committee (POC) to reinstate Tabal, which was unanimously supported by the councilors.
“I am very happy right now because my hard work of helping her also paid off,” said Gabuya. “I talked to Mayor Tom (Osmeña) to give her a cash incentive when she gets back home, and also, we are planning to give her a hero’s welcome in coordination with the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC).”
Tabal is scheduled to fly back in Cebu City on August 21.
Cebu City Sports Commission (CCSC) Chairman Edward Hayco said Tabal’s win has an emotional effect on him since he was aware of the Cebuana’s hardships before reclaiming her spot in the national team for the SEA Games.
“Mary Joy Tabal is a role model to any athlete out there. She is not just a champion in sport; she is also a blessing from the heavens because of her kindness of sharing her knowledge in running through her grassroots program to the underprivileged kids in her home in Guba,” Hayco told CDN by phone on Saturday.
Mayor Tomas Osmeña, who also backed Tabal during her battle for reinstatement, sent CDN a text message saying he was “personally proud of her.”
“This is an extreme example in sports where size does not matter,” said Osmeña, referring to the petite Tabal, who stands 4 feet and 11 inches.
Liloan Mayor Ma. Christina Frasco, who partnered with Tabal for their grassroots program, expressed pride over Tabal’s feat through a status posted on her Facebook account.
“We are so proud of you! Garbo ka sa Sugbo ug sa Pilipinas (You are a source of pride for Cebu and the Philippines),” Frasco’s status read.
“We in Liloan feel very blessed to have you and Coach John Philip as our consultants for our Liloan Grassroots Running Program. You continue to be an inspiration to all, especially our kids,” Frasco added.
Next mission: Asian Games
Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) Commissioner Ramon “El Presidente” Fernandez, a very vocal defender of Tabal, congratulated Tabal, her coach John Philip Dueñas and her corporate backer Jonel Borromeo for funding her expensive training camp in Saint Moritz, Switzerland, and in Tuscany, Italy, which lasted for three months.
“All the credit goes to these three people because of them, they made the country very proud,” said Fernandez, who was part of Tabal’s team that saw her win the gold in Kuala Lumpur.
“We are already looking forward for the Asian Games,” added Fernandez, who was photographed giving Tabal an emotional embrace after she crossed the finish line.
The 18th Asian Games will be hosted by Jakarta, Indonesia. This will be the first time that Tabal will compete in the meet.
“There was never a single doubt in my mind that she can’t deliver the gold medal because I monitored her training regularly through Dueñas after Rio Olympics last year. She managed to conquer those negative events that transpired in the previous months by winning the gold medal,” said Fernandez.
Motor Ace Philippines-Kawasaki, the main backer of Tabal, sent her to train in Italy. She was also sent on a high-altitude training for three weeks in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
Even before the race started, Jonel Borromeo, the president of Motor Ace Philippines, already expressed confidence that Tabal will win the gold in the SEA Games.
Chipi Borromeo, Jonel’s brother and finance director of Motor Ace Philippines, said that while the company’s support will continue, he wished to express his gratitude to Patafa as well.
“We would like to thank Patafa for their support of Joy. Without them, Joy wouldn’t be able to compete,” said Chipi.
He added that as of the moment, Tabal will stay in the Philippines, but they will send her to more training abroad.
“We are working on another training scheduled for Italy in 2018 in preparation for the Asian Games,” he added.