Just like their able-bodied counterparts, Filipino para-athletes also faced many obstacles due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Nagka-problema dahil may restrictions ‘yung IATF,” said Philippine Paralympic Committee (PPC) President Micharl Barredo in a virtual sendoff for the Tokyo Paralympics-bound Team Pilipinas organized by Citi, Friday.
Among the main concerns was the scarcity of competitions due to the restrictions imposed by the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), when local sports in all levels were paused for several months due to the health crisis.
“Di ba nagka-problema dahil may restrictions ‘yung IATF para sa mga tournament, laro, at lalo na sa amateur,” he recalled.
International tournaments were also hit. One of which was the ASEAN Para Games here in Manila, which was originally set for January 2020 but got postponed to March of that year due to financial and logistic woes.
However, the virus began to wreak havoc in the country by that month, and the biennial multi-sporting event was altogether cancelled.
“Our athletes have not had a major tournament since it had to cancel–because of the COVID-19 virus–our 10th ASEAN Para Games last year,” recalled Barredo, a former Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) commissioner.
The PPC then looked at the 2021 edition of the regional meet in Hanoi, but that has been moved to another date, too, as the SEAG Federation unanimously decided to do so due to the COVID situation in Vietnam.
“There’s been so much uncertainty,” said Barredo.
“They have not been able to participate in many international competitions to improve their ranking.”
It wasn’t just the lack of contests that worried the para-athletes. They also could not utilize their usual training hubs, as the national government converted those into quarantine facilities for people infected with the virus.
“‘Yung mga accessible areas kasi, ‘yung PhilSports Complex, nandiyan sila naka-quarter matagal na, so they can access the track and field oval, naa-access nila ‘yung swimming pool, ‘yung Ultra, ‘yung gym. Tsaka ‘yung kanilang pinagtitirahan, accessible na rin. So, ‘di nangyari ‘yun dahil naging quarantine area ‘yung lugar sa tulong sa gobyerno,” Barredo said.
“Dapat sana doon naman sa Clark. Accessible ‘yun dahil nilalakad natin ‘yun para sa ASEAN Para Games, ginamit din siya. So talagang nahirapan,” he added, referring to the New Clark City in Capas, Tarlac.
But as the adage goes, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. The para-athletes’ situation became much better and clearer, beginning with the approval of the Joint Administrative Order (JAO) for Sports.
The JAO, a set of guidelines for sports and physical activities amidst the pandemic, was made together by the Department of Health (DOH), the PSC, and the Games and Amusements Board (GAB).
Thanks to that, all national athletes were allowed to train in a bubble set-up, a biosafe zone to help ensure that those housed inside are COVID-free.
“Until such time na humingi kami ng permiso sa IATF, o doon sa grupo ng JAO, doon lang kami nakapasok later on sa bubble,” said Barredo.
Everything else then followed suit. Despite the lack of qualifying tourneys, para-athletes were still able to reach the Tokyo Paralympics.
Wheelchair racer Jerrold Mangliwan and discus thrower Jeanette Aceveda qualified after meeting the minimum qualifying standard and theminumum entry slot of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).
Para-swimmer Gary Bejino made it after getting a bi-partite place in the event. His fellow tanker Ernie Gawilan is also in after being awarded by the IPC a berth after a record-setting performance in the 2018 Asian Para Games.
Then there’s also taekwondo jin Allain Ganapin and powerlifter Achelle Guion, who both earned tickets after being granted bi-partite invitations.
Members of the six-strong Philippine team, namely Mangliwan, Ganapin, Bejino, and Gawilan, were able to compete overseas.
Mangliwan saw action in the 2021 World Para Athletics Grand Prix held at Nottwil, Switzerland, where he beat the Paralympic qualifying time in the 400-meter T52 wheelchair race after clocking 1 minute and 2.17 seconds.
Ganapin, meanwhile, fought in the Asian Taekwondo Paralympic Qualification Tournament in Amman, Jordan and won a bronze, and eventually earned a ticket to the Games through a bi-partite invitation.
Ultimately, Gawilan and Bejino swam in the IDM Para Swimming in Berlin, Germany. It was a tilt Gawilan had to join to formalize his entry into Tokyo, and he even made it a memorable stint by bagging the bronze.
“Jerrold was able to participate in the Para Athletic Games in Switzerland. We had swimming in Germany. Ernie Gawilan was able to join that and Gary. And then of course, we had our first taekwondo athlete to participate,” said Barredo.
Gawilan and Mangliwan, together with Guion, are the athletes who will be returning for another Paralympic stint.
“So we have three new athletes, three 2-time Paralympians, and I’m hoping that in the future we’ll have many more,” Barredo expressed.
With all that the Filipino athletes had to go through, Barredo couldn’t be any prouder to see them all make it to the August 24-September 5 meet, where they look to exceed their two bronze medal finishes in the past.
“Our athletes are very eager to participate and compete starting next week, and are, at least for me anyway, already winners. The mere fact that they’ve made it to the Paralympic Games, I believe, is a win in itself,” he said.
“It’s very difficult to qualify under the conditions, and not only that, with all the competitors around the world. Our six para-athletes are now considered elite athletes, not just in the Philippines, but all over the world.
“So I’m hoping that to add to their courage and determination, they will be able to prove that certainly, equality is important and of course, to inspire and excite the world and of course, the Filipino people,” Barredo closed.