[EDITOR'S NOTE: Spin.ph bares its choices for the Top 10 Sports Heroes of 2015 leading up to the announcement of our Sportsman of the Year. All 10 awardees will be honored during our Awards Night to be held on January 30 at the Ceremonial Hall of Marriott Hotel Manila. Here's Awardee No. 6]
CATEGORY: Sportsmen Who Defy The Odds
AWARDEE: Ernie Gawilan
It was a life destined to be simple, underprivileged, borderline destitute for Ernie Gawilan in far-flung Marilog along the foothills of Mt. Apo. And if fate had allowed it, he wouldn’t be here now living his life at all.
Gawilan was born with abnormalities that left him with undeveloped extremities (one arm and two legs), perhaps a product of his mother’s attempted abortion after his father abandoned them in the middle of the pregnancy. He survived the abortion attempt only to be orphaned five months later, losing his mother to cholera. Despite his misfortunes, Ernie takes his fate with a hearty laugh.
“I survived the abortion because I swam well,” Ernie would quip each time he is asked about his life story.
Gawilan then found himself stationed in a retreat house of the Missionaries of Charity in the Island Garden City of Samal in Davao del Norte, where he first learned to swim. And it was that first plunge that set the course for a life-changing turn.
“When I am in the waters, my disabilities are not seen,” said Gawilan, who not only found peace and a sense of normalcy in swimming but also discovered purpose as well — to be an Olympic swimmer.
Three years of swimming competitions has brought Ernie around the world from Asia to Europe, even as his swimming career started with a setback. In his first ever contest, Gawilan was forced to compete wearing jeans as he forgot to bring his swimming trunks. Still, he finished second place in a competition in Cagayan de Oro City for special athletes.
Gawilan’s journey toward an Olympic stint finally bore fruit before 2015 ended when he won two gold medals and one silver to qualify for the Rio Olympics this year.
But achieving his dream was anything but easy.
For a stretch of one year beginning November of 2014, Gawilan virtually camped himself in like a castaway, training intensely under the watchful eyes of national team coaches led by former Asian Gamer Ral Rosario and Tony Ong.
“We had enough training for one year. Because of this, my clocking really improved although I did not think about breaking the record or the Olympic qualifying time,” he shared. “It wasn’t easy but I really gave it my all.”
The rigid training and sacrifice of being away from home to chase his Olympic dream finally paid off last December, when he embarked on one final journey that would land him a place in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games — the equivalent of the regular summer quadrennial Games. Then again, he would find himself in a familiar situation, against stacked odds, soon as his stint at the 8th Asean Para Games in Singapore started.
He was placed on Lane 7 in the 100-meter freestyle while Singapore’s very own Toh Wei Soong was in the opposite side several lanes from him. Ernie said this did not suit his strategy as he could not see Toh from his side of the pool in that short race. He ended up finishing a tad short of the gold and a hairline behind Toh.
However, in the next two races against Toh, Ernie made sure the Singaporean won’t have a chance. Ernie struck for gold in the 400-meter freestyle event breaking the Asean Para Games record and in the process surpassing the Olympic standard with a time of 4:48.49. That swim sealed his Olympic dream, making him the first para swimmer from the Philippines to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Ernie returned to the pool the next day and ripped the 200-meter individual medley record with a time of 2:47.64.
“I want to be the inspiration to people with disabilities like me. I wish that they will not lose hope in life because, like me, the hardships we pass by in life only make us stronger,” Gawilan said soon as he came home from Singapore.
Long before he drew breath, Gawilan had already faced overwhelming odds. And from even before he was born until now, he’d showed he had all the grit (and wit) needed to lead and thrive in a life of defiance.