NAY PYI TAW – It had been so long since Gilbert Ramirez took the top step of the winners’ podium that he couldn’t believe it when he finally did get back.
"Hindi din ako makapaniwala. Pati ako nagulat na kaya ko pa pala," said Ramirez Saturday, a day after claiming the gold medal in the men's -73kg in the judo competition of the 27th Southeast Asian Games here.
It was eight years ago when he last won a SEA Games gold medal, when he was dubbed as the next judo star.
"Pinilit ko talagang manalo para sa judo. Kailangan namin ang mga ganitong panalo para mabuhay ulit ang sport. Kaya ginawa ko lahat ng makakaya ko para makuha ang ginto."
After dominating his event in the 2003 Hanoi and 2005 Manila SEA Games, the 30-year-old Ramirez was billed as potential successor of legendary John Baylon due to his impeccable technique and gung-ho attitude.
Unfortunately, he suffered an injury to his right knee days before the 2007 Games in Thailand, then suffered humiliating setbacks in the 2009 Laos and 2011 Indonesia SEA Games.
He thought it was over.
Ramirez, an Airman First Class, worked doubly hard to turn things around. In fact, in their training camp in Japan two months before the biennial meet, he opted to face bigger, far better foes to improve his game and give his career one last try.
"Akala ko talaga tapos na ako," he said. "Kaya nagsipag talaga ako sa ensayo namin sa Japan para malaman ko kung kaya ko pa. Maganda naman ang naging resulta. At least may natitira pa pala akong lakas."
In the finals against an unheralded Indonesian foe, Ramirez worked hard and patiently waited for an opportunity to lock him up for the gold medal, much to the delight of his coach, Rolan Llamas, who never lost faith in him despite everything that happened.
"Sobrang saya ko nu’ng nanalo ako. Madami akong pinagdaanan pero lahat iyun nawala nu’ng napanalunan ko ang ginto. Kaya ngayon, pagbubutihin ko pa lalo ang ensayo at pipilitin kong manalo ulit sa mga susunod na tournaments."