SPORTSMEN WHO DEFY THE ODDS
Josephine Medina
by Rhoel V Fernandez

Standing on one good leg and weighed down by sheer lack of support, Josephine Medina soldiered on to make history with a bronze-medal finish in table tennis at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games

SHE only has one good leg to stand on but it was good enough for Josephine Medina to lift the nation to a historic feat in the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

The 46-year old table tennis ace ended the Philippines’ 16-year Paralympic medal drought in winning bronze at the table tennis women’s singles class 8 match.

But like most of our national athletes, differently abled or not, Medina’s path to greatness was not easy. Before making it to Rio, for example, Medina had to contend with the Philipine Sports Association for the Differently Abled, the national sports association (NSA) beset by lack of budget, internal politics and favoritism that has left her to train with no formal coach.

To make things worse, she trains in a dimly lit, bare bones facility which would become a sweltering sauna by 10 a.m. on dry days and would have running water on the floor during rainy ones. Still. she spends eight hours a day to train with her sparring partner Pablo Catalan Jr., a former national player and a student of her father’s.

“A third-world country can still excel sa sports, kahit lacking tayo sa marami po. (Other countries) have high-tech training with the nice spaces. If you visit my training area in Marikina City, it’s very humble. Our place is simple. Kahit hindi ganoon ka-standard yung lamesa it’s okay as long as the heart is there,” she said.

She got into table tennis through her father, former national athlete Robert Medina, as a form of therapy for the polio that struck her when she was eight months old.

As a result of the 1991 Gulf War, Robert, a coach at the Royal Saudi Air Force, was unable to return to Saudi Arabia due to the conflict. Faced with financial difficulties, he taught his daughter the sport in earnest so she could obtain a sports scholarship that would allow her to complete the industrial psychology course at the Polytechnic Institute of the Philippines.   

“Table tennis became my passport to finish my studies,” said the former varsity player who went against able-bodied opponents to help PUP become SCUAA champion.

Due to her disability, Medina’s coaches limited the amount she trained, but she had shown signs of her extraordinary willpower that would prove helpful in facing the doubters around her.

“Dapat they should push the athlete beyond the limit. What the able-bodied can do in training, we also can,” said Medina, who failed in her first bid to join the national team.

“I was rejected because of my disability. I took the rejection in a positive light. It inspired me to work and train hard to prove to that disability is not a hindrance in achieving your goals,” she added.

Medina would eventually represent the Philippines as a para-athlete, making her debut at the 2003 ASEAN Para Games in Vietnam. But sadly, her father never got to witness her playing for the flag first-hand as he passed away in 2004 due to a heart attack while in Saudi Arabia.

“I never got to tell him, ‘Pa, I made it internationally,’” the bemedalled athlete recalled. “He never expected I would make it to international competition because of my disability.”

The current world No. 5 in her category would go on to represent the country in several events, including a fourth-place finish in the 2012 London Paralympics. 

Determined to qualify for Rio, Medina needed to compete overseas in a two-year span. So shortly after winning bronze in the 2014 Asian Para Games in Incheon, she needed to travel to Argentina in a week’s time for a tournament.

But in what became a common theme for the next two years, the Philipine Sports Association for the Differently Abled repeatedly told her there was ‘no budget.’ She also needed a visa and to apply for the necessary endorsements from the different sports agencies.

Having no sponsors or support from her NSA, Medina was practically on her own. What’s worse, though, is that some officials already shot down her chances even before the competition began. But Medina was only inspired to push forward as others tried to pull her down.

“I spent my hard-earned incentive money to qualify. It is not easy. There is a process, a ranking. You have to meet the criteria. You have to be at the tournaments. Unlike in other sports, they can easily have wildcards but in table tennis it’s different,” an unfazed Medina recalled of the struggles she went through.

 “I always travel by myself. I’m the coach. I’m the manager. I’m the one who attends the technical meetings,” she added. “As part of my experience for the preparation for the Paralympics, sobra-sobrang mental training. Saan kayo nakakita na athlete ka na, you have to process everything na makapag-qualify ka, fix your budget, apply for your passport and follow up everywhere.

"For the honor of country ang goal ko po. While you’re still alive, you have to have a purpose sa mundo, makapag-contribute ka, magkaroon ka ng silbi.”

Fortunately, the Philippine Sports Commission stepped in after learning she was processing the necessary documents herself. She reached Buenos Aires at 10 p.m. on the eve of her first match, and the rest as they say was history.

Nothing came easy but the feisty Bicolana would marvel at how things worked out in the end, leading her to keep on repeating her mantra: “Unexpectedly, God finds ways.”

After all that she went through, it was only fitting the adopted daughter of Marikina City who simply wanted to espouse the cause of athletes with disabilities was chosen to be the country’s flag-bearer in Rio.

“Nagpapasalamat ako sa Panginoon. It’s an eye-opener. I’m just an instrument para mabigyan po ng karapat-dapat ang mga atleta po,” she said.