Filipino athletes

2021: The year Filipina athletes soared to unprecedented heights

Ariel Ian Clarito
2021: The year Filipina athletes soared to unprecedented heights

SHINING. Filipina athletes lead the golden romp for Philippines sports in the international scene.

Stoyan Nenov/REUTERS (Diaz), LPGA (Saso), Luis Robayo/REUTERS (Petecio), Rafael Nadal Academy (Eala), Jack Animam Instagram page, PVL Bureau (Santiago)

The women of Philippine sports rule the year with their historic performances

In the local sports landscape, which all too often relegates women to the sidelines, the Filipina athletes showed in 2021 that they deserve the same attention typically reserved for male athletes. 

The Filipina athletes soared to unprecedented heights, and we pay tribute to them who refused to play second fiddle. They carried the hopes and aspirations of the country on their strong shoulders, and dislodged constructs imposed by the patriarchy that in the past constrained our sportswomen from shining in their full glory.


Hidilyn Diaz had already secured for herself years ago a page in the annals of Philippine sports: first Filipina Olympic medalist after her performance in Rio in 2016, third athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic silver medal, Asian championship gold medalist, multiple bronze medalist in the world championship, gold medalist in the 2018 Asian Games. 

Diaz was largely considered the greatest Filipina athlete of all time.

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Golden lift: Hidilyn Diaz captures historic Olympic gold

Golden lift: Hidilyn Diaz captures historic Olympic gold

In a gripping Tokyo Olympic showdown against a Chinese rival who appeared unbeatable, Diaz’s strength and mental fortitude enabled her to lift beyond her limits and secure for the country its first ever gold medal. 

Her achievement erased a century of frustration and near-misses for the Philippines on the Olympic stage. It was a hoist that caused a seismic shift in the history pages. Not only was Diaz the GOAT (greatest of all time) among all Filipina athletes, she also made a case for herself as among the greatest athletes ever from the Philippines.

The Philippines has through the years produced a number of outstanding athletes. But there is another tier in the pedestal which is reserved only for a very select few: names like Paeng Nepomuceno, Manny Pacquiao, Bata Reyes, Bong Coo, and Caloy Loyzaga – all of them world beaters whose accomplishments sizzled brightly on the global stage. In 2021, Diaz proved she deserved her own place in this elite and illustrious list.

Boxing through a gauntlet

The Olympics was Nesthy Petecio’s redemption.

Petecio was tabbed the favorite in the 2020 Asia and Oceania Olympic Boxing Qualifiers. After all, she was the reigning women’s world featherweight champion. She needed only to make the semifinals to nail her Olympic berth, but she lost to Japan’s Irie Sena via split decision in the quarterfinals.

Fast forward to the Tokyo Olympics. Petecio, who eventually earned qualification by virtue of her world ranking, faced a brutal draw in her medal pursuit. 

After an easy 5-0 victory in the opening round against Congo’s Marcelat Sakobi Matshu, Petecio eliminated in the round of sixteen world No. 1 Lin Yu-Ting of Chinse Taipei, projected by the Associated Press (AP) as the likely Olympic gold medalist. 

In the quarterfinals, Petecio scored a 5-0 shutout over her tormentor in the 2018 World Championships, Yeni Arias Castaneda of Colombia. Petecio dominated in the semifinals Italian Irma Testa, who had earlier defeated Russian Liudmila Vorontsova, predicted by AP as the possible bronze medalist, and Michaela Walsh of Ireland, AP’s bet for the silver medal. 

Petecio’s Olympic campaign ended in the hands of Sena, who won for Japan only its third boxing gold. Petecio, on her part, became the Philippines’ 4th Olympic silver medalist.

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Nesthy Petecio settles for silver, still makes history

Nesthy Petecio settles for silver, still makes history
The phenom

Alex Eala continued in 2021 her march towards global prominence.

She began the year by capturing her first ever professional title by defeating 28-year-old veteran Spaniard Yvonne Cavalle-Reimers in the finals of the ITF $15,000 W15 Manacor tourney held in Spain.

Winning an ITF professional tournament is no easy feat. Capturing an ITF pro title at the age of 15 is nothing short of phenomenal.

The last time a Filipina emerged women’s singles champion in the ITF circuit was when 21-year-old Katharina Lenhert copped a title in Egypt in 2015. The last time a Filipino won an ITF men’s singles title was in 2006, when then-30-year-old Cecil Mamiit pocketed a tournament in New Orleans. 

Eala also made her first ever doubles finals in the professional circuit when she and Oksana Selekhmeteva of Russia finished runner-up in the W25 Platja D’Aro in Spain last May. 

The pair carried over their partnership to the French Open juniors doubles the following month. The top-seeded pair bagged the girls’ doubles title. This was Eala’s second career junior grand slam doubles championship, making her the only player in history from the Philippines to win two junior grand slam titles. In 2020, she won the Australian Open girls’ doubles. 

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Alex Eala, Selekhmeteva crowned 2021 French Open girls doubles champions

Alex Eala, Selekhmeteva crowned 2021 French Open girls doubles champions
The Pinay imports

Jaja Santiago has been a fixture in the Japanese Volleyball League since 2018, an indication of the trust she has gained from her ballclub, the Ageo Medics, which is based in Saitama. 

Last March, Santiago became the first local player to win an international professional league championship when she propelled the Ageo Medics to the Japanese V. Cup title. She is now back in Japan with her club, which currently sits at 6th place in the V. League standings.

Santiago is not the only NU Lady Bulldog who broke ground abroad this year. Jack Animam became the first Philippine-born basketball player to be signed by a professional ball club in Europe. 

Before she went down with an injury, Animam was a pillar of strength for Radnicki Kragujevac in the Serbian 1st Women’s Basketball League. In the seven games she played, Animam averaged 20 points, 14.14 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.7 steals, and 1.8 blocks.

Santiago and Animam were just two of the Filipina athletes who were recruited to play as imports in professional leagues outside the country this year.

Kalei Mau, who finally gained the approval of the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball to play as a local for the Philippine national team, suited up over the summer for Changos de Naranjito in the 2021 Liga de Voleibol Superior Femenino in Puerto Rico.

After an impressive showing in the 2021 AVC Asian Women’s Club Volleyball Championship, Mylene Paat was signed by four-time Thailand League champion Nakhon Ratchasima.

Two of the Philippine Women’s National Football Team’s most potent offensive threats, Sarina Bolden and Quinley Quezada, were signed to see action in Japan’s newest top-flight professional division, the Women’s Empowerment League. Bolden joined the Chifure AS Elfen while Quezada was inked by JEF United Chiba.

Swinging her way to the top

Yuka Saso spent 29 consecutive weeks in 2021 in the top 10 of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) world rankings. Her highest world ranking for the year was 5th. She ended the year 2021 as the 8th-ranked golfer in the world. Saso is the youngest among the top 10 golfers in the world.

Last June 6, two weeks before she turned 20 years old, Saso bounced back from two early double bogeys and fended off the challenge from Japan’s Nasa Hataoka in the third hole of a sudden death playoff to clinch the 76th US Women’s Open golf championship at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Saso matched the record of South Korean Inbee Park as the youngest winners of the US Women’s Open.

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Yuka Saso wins US Women’s Open

Yuka Saso wins US Women’s Open

The US Women’s Open is the oldest among the five LPGA Majors. It is also the major tournament which offers the highest prize money for the winner. By emerging as the US Women’s Open champion, Saso earned for herself a whopping $1,000,000.

Saso, who at 17 years old won the women’s individual gold medal and the team gold medal in the 2018 Asan Games, is the first golfer from the Philippines to win a golf major. Saso played her first professional event on June 2020 in the Japan LPGA. In just a year and a half as a professional golfer, Saso has earned an estimated minimum of $2 million.

Mau Belen

Mau Belen said in a previous interview with Rappler, “I cannot fail”. She knew a lot of eyes zeroed in on her. She knew she had to stand up not only for herself but also for all women who had been fighting for their voices to be heard in the male-dominated sport of basketball. 

Early this year, Belen was tapped by Chot Reyes to be part of the TnT Tropang Giga coaching staff in the PBA. 

When the PBA finally opened its Lakas ng Tatlo 3×3 tournament, Belen was appointed the head coach of the TnT Tropang Giga.

Off the bat, Belen proved not only could she match wits with other tacticians, but she could actually beat them. In her first foray as head coach, she piloted the Tropang Giga to the championship of the inaugural leg of the PBA’s 3×3 competition. 

True success is never a one-shot deal. Belen has steered her team to consistently play at a high level through six legs of the competition. The Tropang Giga have finished in 2nd place twice in the succeeding legs. Heading into the Grand Finals of the 3×3 first conference, the TNT Tropang Giga are No. 2 in the overall standings behind the Meralco Bolts. –