Mimaropa’s SPED athlete joins Palaro 2018 against all odds

Mara Cepeda

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Mimaropa’s SPED athlete joins Palaro 2018 against all odds
Puerto Princesa's Leo Lee Cornel, a SPED athlete, plans to dedicate his future victory in the games to his older brother

ILOCOS SUR, Philippines – The heat was almost unbearable at the stadium, but 16-year-old Leo Lee Cornel didn’t mind. The athlete competing at the Special Games of the Palarong Pambansa 2018 wanted to win the 200-meter dash. 

Minutes before the go signal, Leo Lee was even practicing his running form on the track. He ended up finishing 7th out of 8 in his heat. (READ: LIVE UPDATES: Palarong Pambansa 2018 in Vigan, Ilocos Sur

But this did not dampen his spirits. 

Masaya (I am happy),” said Leo Lee, when asked how he felt after running. He can barely form complete sentences because he is differently abled. 

His coach, Mary Jane Abog, said she was only able to train Leo Lee 3 weeks before the special games. She had replaced Leo Lee’s original coach, who could not train him due to another commitment.  

ON THE TRACK. Leo Lee during the 200-meter event. Screenshot by Rappler

Mary Jane, however, only had coaching experience for bocce, so she did an online research of drills she can make Leo Lee do to prepare for Palaro. 

“Bali 4 po ‘yan sila [na] pinatulog ko sa bahay. Five o’clock pa lang gising na po kami. Kasama po akong nagja-jogging,” said Mary Jane, who is also a special education (SPED) teacher.

(I let 4 of them stay at my house. By 5 o’clock, we are all awake already. I would join them in jogging.)

Sa 3 weeks na ‘yon po, nakita ko po na gusto rin ni Leo Lee na manalo. Talagang grabe din po ‘yong practice nila. Sa bundok pa sa bahay nila, Saturday, Sunday, kasama niya ‘yong Papa niya,” she shared. 

(During those 3 weeks, I saw how much Leo Lee wanted to win. He practiced intensely for this. He even used to jog with his father on a mountain every Saturday and Sunday.) 

First Palaro loss

With Palarong Pambansa 2018 being his first, Leo Lee was excited to compete. Mary Jane said the teenager was already asking if they were already near Vigan City while they were still two days away by boat. 

Like in the 200-meter dash, Leo Lee failed to qualify for his first event: The 100-meter dash. Mary Jane said the athletics hopeful got distracted after seeing his opponents were using shoes with track spikes. He was only using regular rubber shoes.

Bakit daw may spike daw po ‘yong shoes ng kanyang mga kasama, siya daw po wala. So nag-start na po, nakatingin siya, tapos pumutok na po ‘yong ano. Siya, nahuli po talaga. Kasi siguro first time din niya po talaga, nabigla po talaga siya,” said Mary Jane. 

(He was asking why his opponents’ shoes had spikes while his don’t. He was still looking at the spiked shoes when the gun blared to start the race. He was really left behind. It’s also his first time, so maybe that’s why he was among the last ones to finish.)

AFTER THE RACE. Leo Lee takes a breather. Screenshot by Rappler

Leo Lee was sad after his first Palaro loss, but he soon recovered. 

According to Mary Jane, he started doing drills on his own while their team was resting after Leo Lee’s 100-meter dash bout. 

No’ng nagpapahinga po kami sa grand stand, takbo siya nang takbo. Ginagawa niya ‘yong mga basic training namin, mga warm-ups namin. Tapos tawa po kami nang tawa, pati ‘yong mga kasamahan namin, pati ‘yong boss, tawa nang tawa sa kanya,” recounted Mary Jane with a smile.

(While we were resting at the grand stand, he kept on running. He was doing our basic training and warm-ups. We kept on laughing at him, even our boss.)

A victory for kuya

Why was Leo Lee training so hard?

[Sabi niya] para manalo siya. Sa school daw siya mag-training uli, para sa June pa lang, para sa 2019 daw, Palarong Pambansa 2019. Preparation niya ho ‘yong kahapon. Talagang pursigido po talaga siya na manalo,” said Mary Jane. 

(He said he wants to win. He said he will train in school as early as June this year for the Palarong Pambansa 2019. It was his preparation. He is working hard so he would win.) 

Leo Lee’s losses aren’t stopping him from pursuing his goal to win in Palaro someday. After all, his heart is already set to whom he will dedicate his victory in the future.

[Para kay] kuya… [kasi] nanalo ako (For my brother… because I will win),” said Leo Lee, who Mary Jane said is very close with his sibling back in Puerto Princesa City.  

With Palaro being the biggest sporting event in the country for students, podium finishes are serious business for most of the competing students. (READ: Lone Palaro athlete from Marawi wants to play for UST tennis someday

ATHLETE AND COACH. Leo Lee and Mary Jane are looking to train harder for next year's Palarong Pambansa. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

But for SPED athletes like Leo Lee, joining competitions like Palaro goes beyond the medal count.  

Na-expose po sila, then nae-enjoy po nila ‘yon (They become exposed to more experiences and get to enjoy),” said Mary Jane.  

Kahit na special po sila, nakakarating po sila sa ibang lugar. ’Yon po ‘yong mga bagay na ‘di nila makakalimutan (Even if they are special athletes, they are still able to travel to new places. These are the things they will never forget).” –

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.