ABOUT two months ago, taekwondo jin Kurt Barbosa became the ninth Filipino to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
He will be the lone PH representative in the sport, after reaching the finals of the Asian Taekwondo Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Jordan last May.
He is also the first Pinoy male jin to book a ticket to the quadrennial meet in the last decade — the first since Tshomlee Go graced the Olympic stage back in 2008.
While it's always been 'Para sa Bayan' in everything he does, this year's feat, though, also feels a little personal for the 22-year-old.
Before he punched his ticket to Tokyo and the biggest sports event in the world, he had to endure rejection after rejection — not just internationally, but even in his own country.
Three years ago, in UAAP Season 81, Barbosa bagged both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors as he led the National University Bulldogs to a back-to-back title in the men's taekwondo. But his promising collegiate career did not mean he would be assured of a slot in the national team.
"It's a funny experience na for three or four years na nag-try out ako for the national team dati, lahat 'yon na-reject ako, sunod-sunod, every year, di ako nakukuha," Barbosa recalled to SPIN Life. "Pero hindi talaga ako tumigil."
When he was finally given a spot on the team in 2019, he was quick to prove he deserved it, winning gold in the -54kg category in the 30th Southeast Asian Games.
"Siguro ganon lang talaga ako, palaban lang talaga. Ito naman ang passion ko eh, at ngayon, narating ko na ang pangarap ko," he said.
Kurt Barbosa: From Abra to Tokyo
His journey to Tokyo began in Bangued, the capital of the northern province of Abra, at the foot of the Cordillera mountains.
It was there he lived in a tight knit home with his family. But Kurt dreamed of chasing an athletic career — an ambition his parents supported, even if it meant living miles away from his family.
"'Nung pumunta na ako sa Manila, hirap na hirap talaga ko. Naho-homesick ako eh. Wala kong alam dito at hindi talaga ko sanay mahiwalay sa kanila [family]," he said. "Minsan uuwi ako pero pinupush ako ng parents ko bumalik talaga, sinasabi nila sa akin, 'Bumalik ka [sa Manila], iba na ang buhay mo.'"
In Bangued, his life was pretty simple and slow-paced. Then, at 14 years old, he was on his own, marveling at the concrete jungles of Manila.
This is how described his schedule: "Six ako nung nagstart ako maglaro. 'Yung parents ko talaga ang nagpasok sakin, every summer, may training and competitions, lumalaban sa iba't ibang lugar."
Kurt initially thought of becoming a basketball player, like a lot of other Filipino kids.
"Kasi nung bata ako, mas gusto ko talaga basketball. Pero kahit anong pilit ko sa tatay ko, di talaga ako binibilhan ng sapatos pam-basketball. Taekwondo daw ang i-focus ko," he said. But even if it wasn't his first choice, he quickly embraced the martial art. "Pag panalo tas nakita kong masaya kami ng family ko, na-enjoy ko na siya."
Barbosa first got a dose of the UAAP's competitive play in high school, when he was a student in Far Eastern University Diliman.
It was there that he also got gold — first place at once, in his first time joining a taekwondo competition.
"'Dun nagsimula 'yung journey ko dahil na-boost 'yung confidence ko," he said.
Then, he moved to the Bulldogs' den for senior high school and college. And in just three years, he's taking his talent to Japan, carrying the Philippine flag.
When he relayed the news to his family, his parents were the first to shed tears of joy.
And while he's off to show the fruits of his long months of hardwork, he wants everyone to know that there are many others like him out there in the provinces: international-level talents, just waiting to be discovered.
"Ang surprising, dati pangarap lang namin 'to. Ngayon nandito na ko. So gusto ko lang din ipaalam na sa provinces, kung saan minsan parang ang layo namin sa kabihasnan, kaya kong sabihin na maraming magagaling na tao doon, diyan ako kumukuha ng lakas," he said.