A rough life hasn’t discouraged paralympic swimmer Ernie Gawilan

Alyssa Rola

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A rough life hasn’t discouraged paralympic swimmer Ernie Gawilan
He found his second home-his true calling- beneath the waves

MANILA, Philippines- For paralympian and swimmer Ernie Gawilan, being born with underdeveloped extremities was just the tip of the iceberg. 

For 26 years, Gawilan has coped successfully without feet and only his right hand. But the Davaoeño has survived much more than that. 

The swimmer was born into a life in the mountains, along the backcountry of Paquibato in Davao del Sur. Away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Gawilan was raised by a grandparent as he was orphaned at a very young age. 

Gawilan survived an attempted abortion by his mother, but later on lost the latter when he was still an oblivious baby. 

“My grandfather when he was still alive told me that my mother wanted to abort me as she got impregnated by another man although she already had a husband,” Gawilan recalled in an interview with Sun Star

Despite everything, the paralympian refused to hold grudges and still considers his parents an inspiration for his recent achievements.

“I’m still thankful to my father and mother for without them I won’t be here.” 

These emotional wounds nearly hindered Gawilan from making something out of his life. He was afraid to veer away from his comfort zone to follow his dreams. 

Noong nasa bundok pa po ako, ang hirap isipin na lalabas ako sa bahay,” Gawilan shared during the first Philippine Sports Para Summit on Friday, June 9. “Parang nahihiya ako. Nasa bintana lang ako.”

(When I was still living on the mountains, it was hard to think of myself going out of the house. I was shy, I just stayed by the windows.)

It didn’t take long for sports to come knocking at his door. He found his second home-his true calling- beneath the waves. 

Journey to Rio 

As a young man, Gawilan was discovered by late businessman Vicente Ferrazzini, and found himself en route to Our Lady of Victory Training Center- a foundation dedicated to the handicapped youth based in Sasa, Davao City. 

He was then given a chance to visit Samal Island, where the foundation had a beach resort.

Isang araw may isang caregiver na doon na-assign sa Samal island. Siya po yung nagsabi sakin na, ‘gusto mo ba matuto magswimming?’ Dati po kasi wala akong alam sa sports, ‘di ako mahilig makihalubilo sa tao kasi nahihiya ako. Sabi nya, sige turuan kita.” 

(One day, I met a caregiver assigned there in Samal island. She was the one who asked me, ‘do you want to learn how to swim?’ I didn’t know anything about sports, I wasn’t fond of socializing because I was shy. She then told me, ‘alright, I’ll teach you.’)

Since then, Gawilan trained and joined numerous competitions, including the Philippine Olympic Festival back in 2008. 

He also won gold at the 2015 ASEAN Para Games in Singapore, which in turn earned him a ticket to the Rio Olympics. 

Bago po ako tumungtong sa paralympics, marami din po akong pinagdaanan. Noong 2012 po, sinubukan po namin na coach na sumali sa paralympics sa London. Hindi po kami nag-qualify. Pero sabi ko, sige subukan ko lang. Talagang sinagad namin ni coach ‘yung training. Hanggang sa nakuha ko,” mused Gawilan as he reminisced his journey to Rio. 

(I went through so much before I even reached the paralympics. In 2012, my coach and I tried to compete for London Olympics, but we didn’t qualify. I told myself, I’ll just keep on trying. My coach and I trained hard, until I finally got it.)

Gawilan donned the national colors as he competed in the 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, and 100-meter backstroke at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Brazil. 

Although Gawilan didn’t return from Rio with a medal, what he accomplished with his presence left nothing to regret.


The young man who used to stare from the windows of a humble dwelling along the Davao terrains has now gazed at the same mountains from 30,000 feet above, on a plane to represent the Philippine flag at the Paralympics and international games. 

“‘Yung halaga ng sports sa akin, importante kasi siguro ‘di po ako nakakilala kung wala po yung sports. Kasi dati parang nadi-discourage na ako kasi sa bundok ako nakatira. Pero ‘di ko po in-expect na makalabas ako ng ibang bansa na libre,” he conveyed with a laugh. 

(Sports has really been important to me, because I wouldn’t have met people without it. Back then, I was discouraged because I was just living on the mountain. I never expected to travel outside the country for free.) 

Gawilan never fails to look back and thank every individual who has been part of his arduous yet fruitful journey. 

Malaki ang tulong ng sports kasi dagdag kumpyansa sa akin.” 

Doon po ako namulat na dapat pala hindi ko ikahiya ‘yung kapansanan ko kasi ‘yung sports, para sa ‘kin, ang nagku-kumpleto sa kapansanan ko,” said Gawilan. “Kahit may kapansanan ako, may magagawa pala ako na hindi kayang gawin ng ibang tao.” 

(Sports has been helpful in giving me confidence. I realized that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of my disability, because for me, sports completes my disability. Even though I was born like this, I realized I could do something that not all people can do.)

At the end of it all, Gawilan found purpose and a place where he can stand tall- even when the real world does not permit. 

Siguro kaya nagkaroon ng kapansanan, para makasali sa sports,” and the ever cheerful persona, Gawilan closed with a chuckle, “[Ngayon], natutunan kong tumayo sa sariling paa.” 

(Maybe the reason why I was born with this disability was so that I could join sports. Now, I have learned how to stand on my own feet.) 

And the crowd joined in laughter. Rappler.com

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