Philippine Olympic team

Rio 2016: Mary Joy Tabal

Mars G. Alison

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Rio 2016: Mary Joy Tabal
Cebu native Mary Joy Tabal collapsed during her first 10K run. Now she'll represent the Philippines in the women's marathon event at the Rio Olympics

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CEBU CITY, Philippines – Growing up in Guba, a mountain village of Cebu City, Mary Joy Tabal never dreamed of becoming an athlete, much less an Olympian. Tabal will be the Philippines first woman representative in the marathon at the 2016 Summer Olympics, which will be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil this August.

“It was a long time ago when I remembered running my first race—the Intramurals in my school in Guba Elementary School. I was in Grade 6, I was wearing my school uniform. And, in college, I collapsed in my first 10K. And then it took a little while to put this dream to heart. Then the ups and downs will measure you. I got to travel to a lot of places and met a lot of people. Those experiences are priceless. I’ve learned a lot from this journey. I hope that you will continue to support and believe in me. This is just the start.”

As a young girl, Tabal said that all she ever dreamed of was being able to go to school and finish college.

“My ambition rajud ato kay maka eskwela and finish ug college and then when I entered college, didto nako na hinay-hinay ug love ang sports, and then I slowly started building up my dreams, pieces by pieces,” Tabal said in her native Cebuano.

(My only ambition was that I could go to school and finish college and then when I entered college, it was there that I started to slowly love sports, and then I slowly started building up my dreams, pieces by pieces.) 

True to her ambition, Tabal diligently walked 3 kilometers each day up and down hilly terrain from her home to the school and back.

Unlike most athletes who started training and aiming for the Olympics at a very young age, Tabal had an unconventionally late start in sports when she was 12 years old. She got into the sport of running after she tried her luck in her school’s intramurals. She was a Grade 6 student then at the Guba Elementary School.

“Actually, almost tanan physical activities ato na time sa school ako ge-apilan and then sa running man ko nidaog, the 100-m sprint.” And, the reason why she did was because she wanted to have a physical activity.

(Actually, I joined in almost all physical activities that the school then had at that time and it was in running that I won, the 100-m sprint.)

Mary Joy Tabal lights the flame at the 2015 Batang Pinoy National Finals held in Cebu City. Photo by Nathan Soriano

Following that win, the 12-year-old Tabal was brought by her teacher to other competitions. In that same year, she was able to compete in the district meet, city meet, division meet, the Cebu City Olympics, the Palarong Pambansa, Batang Pinoy and the Milo Little Olympics.

Also that year, Tabal caught the attention of private schools which offered her scholarships. She ultimately turned them down, saying she was too young and opting to study instead at Guba National High School. Tabal prioritized her secondary education and did not dabble in sports throughout her high school years.

“Since high school I stopped my running career because I tried to join during my first year but I found it difficult to manage my time as a student and at the same time as an athlete,” said Tabal.

Although she usually earned the highest scores during quizzes, this did not translate to major exams. 

I need to self study so I could catch up with the coverage and it was there that I struggled. Since Kinder, I have been at the top of the class, I was a salutatorian during my elementary and even in high school, so I gave up sports in high school but I had learned to love it [running] then,” said Tabal.

Receiving Guidance

After finishing her secondary education, Tabal was offered several academic and varsity athletic scholarships, but settled on Southwestern University in her home province. While continuing to run in sprints, it was also in college that Tabal started venturing in Long Distance Running upon the urgings of her coach, John Philip Duenas, as well as starting to entertain thoughts of the Olympics.

“I actually dreamt of being in the Olympics when I was still a sprinter in college knowing Lydia de Vega is my idol but at that time my heart was not yet 100 percent into sports. I just used it as a tool to finish my studies, but then when I started doing long distance running, step by step I slowly achieved my goals and small dreams, it was then that my desire to be in the Olympics someday slowly started coming back.”

Tabal credits Duenas as the one who encouraged her to go into long distance running, saying there wouldn’t be as many sprinting events after college, in addition to the boom in marathons in Cebu. Tabal agreed to be trained by Duenas. However, while Duenas was already prepping her for big events then, Tabal had another purpose.

“He really put his heart in training me pero ang ako-a ato purpose is just to win for money. I was desperate. I trained hard and harder for money. Didto nako nakita na I can help myself and my family thru my running. That was the first reason nganu nedagan ko sa long, for money and nothing else.”

(He really put his heart in training me but my only purpose then was to win for money. I was desperate. I trained hard and harder for money. It was there that I saw that I can help myself and my family through my running. That was the first reason why I run the long, for money and nothing else.)

Tabal grew up in a broken family. She was 12 years old when their mother left all of them to her father. She is the second in the family but being more mature than her older sister, it was Tabal who took on the role of being a mother to the rest of her siblings.

“I had a bad past and lisod amo kahimtang sa amo pamilya that time, broken family ko and that time galisud jud ako papa to support the 4 of us sa pag eskwela, and as in lisud jud kaau mi, naa time na ganahan na kaau ko mo give up, walay gabie na dili ko maghilak sa mga nahitabo sa amo pamilya, gatuo ko dili ko makahuman or ako mga igsuon but I just kept on praying na e-guide ko in Lord sa sakto na dalan and then I met Philip (Duenas).”

(I had a bad past and our family’s situation was really hard at that time. I belong to a broken family and at that time my father had a hard time in supporting the education of all 4 of us. We really had a difficult time, there was even a time that I wanted to give up already, there is no night wherein I would not cry over what happened to our family, I had really believed that I won’t be able to finish school as well as my siblings but I just kept on praying for the Lord to guide me to the right path and then I met Philip.)

Tabal credits Duenas as the one who saw the potential in her and made her believe in herself.

Philip keeps reminding me and I would always laugh at him because for me it is really impossible,” Tabal said. “But every time he mentions that what if I can go to the Olympics, he is really serious about it. I know it’s a challenge on his part because he told me that all that he dreamed of before were given to me by the Lord. He said he saw in me all his dreams and that I should be the one to achieve them because he has no hope of achieving them for himself. I may have been laughing in front of him but I took it all deep inside my heart, and deep inside I was also hoping and dreaming of that impossible dream.”

Tabal admits that her initial motivation for running was money and that she never could've imagined qualifying for the Olympics. Photo from Tabal's Facebook page

More than guiding her in becoming an athlete with a chance of becoming an Olympian, Tabal added that Duenas became in her words not only her ‘Angel dela Guardia” but of her family as well. Duenas taught her to be responsible not only in sports but to also apply all she has learned such as the discipline to her life.

He kept reminding me that it’s okay that I am only after the money but I will not improve. He told me ‘You are burning out your body. We need to focus on targeting big events, so you will improve. You should not only compete here in Cebu but in Manila as well or even outside the country. Wouldn’t you like that, you only race once but the price money is big? You should just train, I will take care of your allowance per week and even for your siblings,” Tabal said.

He even said to me to just give him 3 years to train me, just follow everything I say, I will take care of you. If I say this is the only race you will compete in then that’s it. If after 3 years nothing will happen and I will not be able to change you, I mean, you will not love running then I’ll set you free. It is up to you what you want to do. You can work, maybe get married, but for now just give me this chance to bring out that talent in you.

“He was the one who believed in me and now all is coming to fruition.”

It was also Duenas who taught her how to save and to spend responsibly.

He never tires of telling me ‘Joy, remember that you worked hard for that money, you sweat for it, it is okay if you buy what you want, but if in case there is an emergency in your family, I know there is no one else you can turn to.’ And it happened many times, family financial problems, it’s Philip who lends me money. That is why he told me ‘think thoroughly what you need and what you just want. I’d be happier if you buy shoes because that will be an investment for you rather than buying just about anything.’”

Tabal said that her coach might be very strict but it is his way of disciplining her. He also keeps reminding her to always remember her beginnings and not to let her achievements get to her head because there are many athletes with potential who lost their focus. 

In essence, Duenas was not only Tabal’s running coach but her life coach as well.

Philip is behind all these, I would never have gotten this far without him. He never asks for a share of my winnings, instead, it is him who shares to me. Even my big winnings, he’d tell me ‘just keep that because I know a lot are depending on you, just always remember how you got that money, you cried over that, went sleepless, worked hard, sweat, your investment was your body,'” said Tabal.

“So now, he is one of my inspiration, to try harder because he told that that good things are happening to me now, I was able to reach my dreams because I learned to love running. He had dreamed this for himself, that he’s be able to compete in the Sea Games, be in the Olympics and compete in many international races, and it is me who is able to achieve them.”

Under Duenas’ guidance, Tabal not only finished college but she was also able to finish her master’s degree. She was also able to send her younger sibling to the university, the graduation of whom she considers one of her best trophies. Tabal was also able to establish communication with her mother after 11 years of separation.

Off to the Olympics

The Olympic dream started becoming real for Tabal when she grabbed a silver medal during the Southeast Asian Games. Adding to that, she clocked 2:48 twice in the Milo National Marathon. Also fanning the hopes for Tabal was when it was announced late last year that the Olympic qualifying time has been lowered from 2:42 to 2:45.

After qualifying for the Olympics via the Scotia Bank Ottawa Marathon in Canada and after she was reinstated to the Philippine National Team by the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA), Tabal is now training for the biggest competition of her life, the upcoming 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She left for Japan on June 28 and from there will fly directly to Rio on the first week of August. Her race is set for 8:30 pm on August 14 (8:30 pm Manila time).

The road to the Olympics for Tabal was laden with controversy and perhaps the biggest of which was her falling out with PATAFA which had the sole discretion of recommending athletes for athletics for the Philippine Olympic Team. Having resigned from the Philippine National Team, Tabal opted to qualify to the Olympics on her own and hoped to convince PATAFA to give her an endorsement.

“My obstacles were first I got disappointed on my first try (Olympics qualifier) at the Boston Marathon. After that race all I was thinking na unsa na mahitabo nako, wala nako direction ato (what will happen to me now, I no longer have direction), as in empty. Then next, after hitting the qualifying for Olympics in Ottawa, the challenged was how to be able to be in the Philippine Team to formally represent the country for the Olympics.”

Tabal said she overcame these obstacles by staying positive all the time, plus “prayers and believing that there are reasons for everything, keeping the faith and do what you think is right without putting someone down.”

When asked what inspires her for her big race, Tabal says: “My inspiration is my family, got my strength from them and also my desire to run for the Filipino people and this dream that from impossible became possible, so I am really inspired to do more and make things happen hopefully.”

Tabal is training with the Nippon Sports Science University in Yokohama under Youhei Sato, head coach of the University Women’s Long distance; Miharu Nishizawua, assistant coach and nutritionists; and Akio Usami, former Japan and legendary Olympian, all in coordination with Duenas. Her training is funded by Tabal’s team, MotorAce-Kawasaki Racing Team headed by Jonel Borromeo.

“I opt to train in Japan [because] I already tried being here the previous months and we [coach Philip and Sir Jonel] saw that the training here is effective not only because of the training program but also because of the training venue, sports facilities, my nutrition, sports conditioning and everything. Here, I am well taken cared of as an athlete, all my needs are here and anytime you can train, even in the evening it will not be a problem.”

At the moment Tabal said her training, which she does twice a day, is focused more on steady paced endurance running, longer workouts and longer runs, a training program worked on by Usami and Duenas. According to her coaches, she already has the speed, so now they need to work on her weakness which is to sustain a certain pace all throughout the marathon distance.

Aside from that, Tabal has also started training in Tokyo, running late at night and even under the rain, which she assures is safe as there are policemen all over the place for her body clock adjustment.

Tabal said she knows that bringing home a medal is difficult, but that hasn’t stopped her from dreaming big.

“I know all athletes in the Olympics dream to have a medal and that’s also my dream, ako nalang pud sila sabayan (I will just go along with them), and I know it’s impossible for me to have that medal but naging impossible sad baya ang pag qualify nako for the Olympics (qualifying for the Olympics was also impossible for me) but I did it. And, wala man sad mawala nako if I dream and aim for that medal (I have nothing to lose if I dream and aim for that medal). So my target is to hopefully get a medal para mas ako jud tarungon ako training For me to work on hard for my training). I am also targeting of improving my time in Ottawa, to 2:40 or below, so hopefully in God’s will.”

She added that she wants to carry the country’s colors in this world’s biggest sporting stage and that making her countrymen proud is something that you can’t put a price on.

“I never thought of doing this just for myself. I dreamt and I worked for it. It took a lot of effort, pain, hard work and patience to achieve this. And I know I won’t be here without the people who believed in me and supported me by all means. I am just lucky and fortunate that I met these people. I will never be the same person I am now without them. And I know saying ‘thank you’ is not enough…From the bottom of my heart, I am really grateful for everything and I believe God sent you all to me,” Tabal said.

Aside from making the Filipinos proud, most importantly Tabal wants to inspire young athletes to dream. 

“I want to inspire a lot of young athletes to dream just like me and make this as a stepping stone, that they too can achieve this. School first; I sacrificed sports in high school so I could focus on my studies. In college I used it so I could finish school, I made sure I won’t fail. Just keep this in mind: continue to dream, continue to train and always remember “Kaya diay sa taga Cebu mag Olympics! (that someone from Cebu can make it to the Olympics)” –

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