SOTY: Ernie Gawilan leads by example to inspire fellow para athletic greats

Feb 10, 2020
PHOTO: Jerome Ascano ILLUSTRATION: Echo Antonio

WHERE others see roadblocks, champion para swimmer Ernie Gawilan, bereft of fully developed lower extremities all his life, senses only opportunities.

He’s relentless and undaunted, the embodiment of everything an apostle of Kobe’s Mamba Mentality should be. We had a taste of what that meant the day we sought his reaction about his inclusion in this illustrious list — and got nothing.

We’re sure he’s elated and all, but the guy, ever in competitive mode, was not about to mess up his training routine.

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“Kelangan niya lagi mag-work out at mag-work hard — with or without me,” Tony Yao, Gawilan’s coach since 2009, explains. “Gusto lang niya mag-swimming. Nasa isip niya kasi malulugi at maiisahan siya ng kalaban kaya di siya nag-a-absent sa training. Kailangang ako na mismo ang magsabi sa kanya na magpahinga.”

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Team Gawilan is currently preparing for the 10th Asean Paragames, which the country is hosting tentatively on March 21 to 27, pending the Philippine Paralympic Committee’s decision on the PSC proposal to postpone the event in light of the novel coronavirus threat.

Moving the competition to a later date will be a boon to the triple-gold and double-silver medal winner at the 2018 Asian Para Games, a historic year for Pinoy athletes with disabilities who won a total of 10 gold medals in multiple disciplines.

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That means more weeks for the Paralympian to perfect his form in his quest to qualify for the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo on August 25 to September 6.

Currently, Yao says Gawilan swims 13 kilometers a day, spending a total five hours in his grueling twice-a-day training schedule, which also includes strength and conditioning sessions every morning. It's a small price to pay for the orphan para athlete who rose above his bleak upringing by committing his life to swimming and empowering other athletes with disabilities to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds.

"Dahil sa swimming natuto akong makipagsalamuha sa ibang tao,” the 2016 Rio Paralympian told us months ago. “Mas nakilala na yung mga athletes, mas maganda na yung ibinibigay na suporta sa amin ngayon. Yung mga atleta nagpupursigi rin dahil maganda ‘yung bigay ng gobyerno, dapat ibalik yun with quality,” ”

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Last year, global car manufacturing giant Toyota recognized Gawilan as one of its Start Your Impossible heroes for 2019. Through the program, the 29-year-old swimming wonder led a group of earth warriors in a clean up drive on the coastal waters of his hometown in Davao. "Let's not pollute the sea," urges Gawilan, "Yun lang ang [nagbibigay] ng malaking access sa mga tao na nahihirapang maligo sa swimming pool kasi may mga bayad."

Gawilan is years away from closing this chapter in his career, what with the considerable goodwill he's gained over the years. You can expect he'll stop at nothing to open doors for fellow athletes with disabilities to reach their potential through sports. "Wag na silang mahiya at magtago,” he said. “’Ika nga nila, ‘sports for all’ tayo rito.”

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PHOTO: Jerome Ascano ILLUSTRATION: Echo Antonio
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