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Scavenger-turned-boxer Carlo Paalam in search of Olympic gold

Southeast Asian Games champion Carlo Paalam was a lanky 9-year-old  scavenger in Cagayan de Oro when he first caught the eye of local sports officials. 

Today, his journey to the Tokyo Olympics is inspiring a new generation of amateur boxers in the province and city. 

Now 22, Paalam was with the national boxing team training in Thailand when he learned that he earned a berth for the Tokyo Olympics.

Paalam, who won the light flyweight gold in the 2019 SEA Games, qualified along with 2019 world champion Nesthy Petecio by virtue of ranking. They received the notice last March 19 from the International Olympic Committee Boxing Task Force.

The announcement boosted Philippine boxing’s medal hopes as Eumir Marcial and Irish Magno had also earned Olympic berths during the 2020 qualifiers.

Backyard boxing

It has been a long journey for Paalam, who picked garbage at the city's sanitary landfill as a young boy. He was discovered in 2009 after slugging it out at the local "Boxing at the Park" here, where officials saw that he showed so much potential.

Paalam recalled during a recent Zoom meeting that it was his neighbor who encouraged him to try his luck at the park after seeing him in a backyard boxing match. He then won his first amateur fight when he was just 7 years old, and bought rice for his family using his prize.

When asked by his father then why he had money to buy rice, Paalam said he lied about boxing and just told him he found good stuff at the city dump in upper Dagong, Barangay Carmen. 

His parents' failed marriage, though, made life difficult for the the promising boxer. 

Paalam’s mother left when he was just 6 years old, and soon, his father brought him and his siblings from Balingoan town in Misamis Oriental to Cagayan de Oro in search of greener pasture. 

For two more years, the boy fought in the ring whenever there was an opportunity while picking up trash at the sanitary landfill until local officials took him in for training in 2009.

Boxers under the program are trained in a facility set up by the local government that provides them monthly allowances, and shoulders their board and lodging expenses on condition that they continue going to school. 

Now that he’s Tokyo-bound, Paalam paid tribute to the local boxing team, his former coaches, and Mayor Oscar Moreno for "believing in me" and providing him training when he was still a boy. 

Aside from Paalam, the local government’s boxing program has also trained some 120 boxers through the years, among them boxing champions Milan Melindo, Pagara brothers Jason and Prince Albert, John Vincent Pangga, and Judelyn Casin.

Winning chances

In 2013, Paalam left the local boxing program to join the national team. Before ruling the 2019 SEA Games, he also bagged gold medals in the 1st Thailand International Boxing Tournament and the 10th AIBA International Boxing Tournament in 2018, and the ASTANA/President’s Cup in Kazakhstan in 2017.

As he gears up for the Tokyo Olympics, Paalam is bent on bringing home more honor to Cagayan de Oro and Misamis Oriental as his way of repaying them for their support.

“Who would have thought our boxing program 18 years ago would produce an Olympian?" said Cagayan de Oro city administrator Teodoro Sabuga-a.

Boxer Dannel Maamo, Paalam's former teammate in the Misamis Oriental boxing team, said he is optimistic about Paalam's winning chances given the young boxer's training discipline, passion, and determination.

Moreno also fondly recalls the boy Paalam: "He barely reached my waistline when I first saw him, and I used to carry him in my arms. We are inspired by his performance, and  are delighted to know he has become one of the world's best amateur boxers."

Paalam’s success in boxing allowed him to build a house for his family in Barangay Canitoan, Cagayan de Oro. But of course, Paalam targets bigger goals ahead.

"Naningkamot ko diri para sa Cagayan de Oro. Kung wala kayo, di ko maaabot ang mga pangarap ko," Paalam said in mixed Bisaya and Filipino. 

(I'm training hard here for Cagayan de Oro. If not for the city, I will not see my dreams turn into reality.) – Rappler.com