Filipina athletes made a lot of inroads in 2021. It was a year they took center stage and carried the weight of Philippine sports on their brave, overachieving shoulders. The enormity of their accomplishments was but an indication that the ceiling to what they could still achieve had not been breached, if there even was a ceiling to speak of.
In 2022, the Filipina athletes remained unstoppable. They continued to shine in the international stage and bring honor and glory to a country that is slowly beginning to appreciate that the present and future will have Filipina athletes figuring prominently, and most likely, leading the way in helping the Philippines gain more relevance in the global sporting landscape.
These are the sports heroines we celebrated in 2022:
A transcendental athlete who cemented her status not only as the undisputed Queen of Philippine sports but also as arguably one of the greatest athletic icons in the country’s history.
A team which rose meteorically and achieved numerous unprecedented milestones all in a span of less than a year.
A trio of martial artists who proved they are among the world’s best.
A budding superstar who, at such a young age, has gone where no tennis player from the Philippines has ever ventured.
A veteran billiards champion who showed yet again she’s far from done.
All hail the queen
Hidilyn Diaz has long earned her place among the greats in the pantheon of Philippine sports.
The silver medal she won in the 2014 Rio Olympics is a feat other athletes would have worked their entire lives to earn. That kind of victory would have been enough for an ordinary athlete to finally walk away from active competition and sail off into the sunset. After all, what else was there to prove?
But Diaz is no ordinary athlete. She became the Asian Games champion in Jakarta in 2018. Not content with a silver in the Olympics, she bagged the Philippines’ first ever gold medal in Tokyo.
This year, Diaz’s winning ways continued by winning gold in the Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam.
And right before 2022 ended, she became the country’s first ever gold medal winner in the World Weightlifting Championships. She swept the 55kg category by clinching three gold medals in the snatch, clean and jerk, and total lift.
An Asian champion. An Olympic gold medalist. And now, a world weightlifting queen.
When Filipinos discuss the greatest ever athlete that the Philippines has produced, Diaz should be among the names that have to be mentioned. If people do put her No. 1 in the list, then it will be a recognition that would be well-deserved.
The meteoric rise of the Filipinas
The Philippine women’s football team made history last January by becoming the first team from the Philippines to qualify for the World Cup.
The historic feat seemed unimaginable just a little over a year ago when the struggling Filipinas had to bleed for goals just to beat tournament minnows.
But a slew of talented recruits led by Sarina Bolden and new Australian coach Alen Stajcic fueled the Filipinas’ meteoric rise.
In May, the Filipinas won for the country its first ever football medal in the Southeast Asian Games by bagging the bronze in Vietnam.
In front of the home crowd in July, the Filipinas also awakened a nation to the beautiful game by winning the AFF Women’s Championship, the first time a Philippine team emerged champion in a major football competition.
Along the way, the Filipinas defeated three regional rivals they had never previously beaten – world No. 34 Vietnam, 39th-ranked Chinese Taipei, and No. 41 Thailand.
The flight of the ‘Southern Falcon’
Junna Tsukii dreamt of representing the land of her birth, the Philippines, in karate’s debut in the Olympics hosted by the country where she grew up, Japan, in what would have been the culmination of a lifetime spent attempting to be a world class karateka.
Unfortunately for Tsukii, she fell short in her bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
She then set out to do the next best thing – become a world karate champion. Last July, she won the gold medal in the World Games held in Birmingham, Alabama, USA.
Tsukii, whose given name when broken down means “falcon” (jun) and “south” (na), became the first karate world champion from the Philippines and the first Filipina to win gold in the World Games. She is also just the second athlete from the Philippines after cue artist Carlo Biado to bag the gold in the World Games.
On her way to the gold medal, Tsukii downed an assassin’s row of some of the best karatekas – reigning world champion Miyo Miyahara of Japan, world No. 2 Yorgelis Salazar of Venezuela, and world No. 4 Shara Hubrich of Germany.
Tsukii is now ranked fourth in the world in the female kumite -50 kilogram category, the highest ever world rankings attained by a karateka from the Philippines.
Game, set, match
It is hard to imagine the body of work produced by Alex Eala at just 17 years of age.
In September, Eala put on a dominant display of powerful groundstrokes, a steady game, and cerebral shot placement to become the US Open girls singles champion.
The historic run – which made Eala the only Philippine tennis player to bag a singles title in a junior Grand Slam event – proved to be even more impressive as she defeated all her six opponents in straight sets
But even before her latest romp, the 5-foot-7 teen is already in the history books as the only Filipino to win two Grand Slam juniors doubles titles – the 2020 Australian Open and the 2021 French Open.
Eala ended 2022 ranked 217th in the world, three rungs lower than her career-best of 214th, but the highest ever world ranking achieved by a Filipinas tennis player.
Last April, she captured her second pro career title by winning a W25 ITF competition in Chiang Rai. She had won her first pro singles title the year prior in Manacor, Spain.
Before Eala burst into the scene, 21-year-old Katharina Lenhert was the last Filipina ITF singles champion in 2015. Then 30-year-old Cecil Mamiit pocketed a tournament in New Orleans in 2006, the last Filipino singles champion.
Eala also won three bronze medals in her SEA Games debut in Vietnam last May.
Two jiu-jitsu world champions
Meggie Ochoa has been one of the most recognizable names in Philippine jiu-jitsu. Rightfully so, as Ochoa is a world champion.
Ochoa, who first laid claim to being the best in 2018 when she became world champion, repeated her success from four years ago by ruling in early November the women’s -48kg category of the 2022 JJIF World Jiu-Jitsu Championships held in the United Arab Emirates. She subdued Vicky Hoang Ni Ni of Canada in the final round, 2-0.
But this time around, it was not just Ochoa who had a gold medal draped around her neck.
Kimberly Anne Custodio also impressed as she came out the last woman standing in the female -45kg category.
A native of Iloilo who took up Jiujitsu only in 2014, Custodio already earned a silver in the 2016 Jiujitsu Federation World Championship held in Long Beach. California.
This time, Custodio made sure there would be no repeat of her runner-up performance as she edged Thailand veteran Kacie Pechrada Tan in the finals.
So now, the Philippines can proudly proclaim that it has two world champions in the sport of jiujitsu.
Still pocketing golds
Rubilen Amit has been synonymous with consistency and excellence. For over a decade, whenever outstanding athletes from the Philippines are mentioned, Amit had always been part of the yearend’s list.
This is not surprising. After all, Amit is one of the finest pool players the country has ever produced. She is the first Filipina to capture a world title, and she did it twice in 2009 and 2013. She has also collected a medal haul of 10 golds from the Southeast Asian Games.
Last September, Amit added another accolade to what has already been an outstanding career when she teamed up with Carlo Biado and Johann Chua to win for the Philippines the 2022 Predator World 10-ball Team Championship held in Klagenfurt, Austria.
But Amit’s influence extends beyond just winning championships. She became the main proponent of the growth of the women’s billiard scene in the country when she initiated the staging of the Amit Cup. The competition had three legs this year, which gave female cue artists the platform to display their skills and go up against top level competition.
Amit was also among the awardees of this year’s The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS), a fitting recognition for a world class athlete and a trailblazer who is now paving the way for fellow female athletes to excel in sports. – Rappler.com