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Cheers to the yr that was

Filipino athletes at the closing ceremony of the 30th Southeast Asian Games. INQUIRY PHOTO / MARIANNE BERMUDEZ

There was a quick start. There was a false start. Before the actual start there was a lot of flak. But like in life, the trip was great. The goal? So far, the country's largest participation in the Southeast Asian Games.

And to think that things were hardly promising in the beginning. Foreign athletes used social media to expose terrible travel, accommodation, and boarding conditions. Someone took a look at what it cost the country to host the 30th edition of the regional Olympic Games and saw rampant spending: a kettle worth over 50 million pesetas threatened to be the permanent symbol of the SEA games. There was a lot of back and forth among politicians before an armistice was agreed.

The first week of December was about the athletes, everyone agreed.

When the athletes got the spotlight, they refused to hand it in and bubbled scorching sports programs one after the other as the Filipino medal machine shook gold after gold after gold.

It started with John Chicano dominating the men's triathlon in Subic, where the Philippines completed 1-2 rounds to remind every contender for the regional throne: in a lung-breaking, skin-tasting, muscle-burning swim race, the Filipino one Influence on the throne is unbreakable.

However, Agatha Wong was not beyond the breakdown.

In fact, her body had curled up in a series of injuries that she had to fight through to show a show in the Taijiquan for women. And in front of their home crowd, Wong delicately unfolded like a fiery red flower in the spring and delicately set off for the No. 2 gold for the Philippines.

"I will hibernate," she said after the SEA games later after winning her own second gold. She had been through a lot, especially with injuries, and it was time for a break.

Kim Mangrobang became No. 3 gold. Her triathlon championship in the women's championship took place after Wong won at the World Trade Center in Pasay City. After that, the gold medals got excited, so it was difficult to keep track of them.

Carlos Yulo shone in the all-round competition of gymnastics. Yulo, who was recognized as a potential Olympic champion, was never seriously threatened by his opponents. However, the rock star treatment he received could have impaired mastery of men's gymnastics. He added more gold through his pet event, the floor exercise. However, he chose silver for his other five events.

"He was distracted," said gymnast director Cynthia Carreon.

"In Germany", where he became world champion in 2019 and sparked hopes for an Olympic gold, "nobody knew me," said Yulo. "Everyone knows me here."

As expected, Hidilyn Diaz won her gold in weightlifting. Margielyn Didal added two from skateboarding. Boxing, led by the world champion and another promising Tokyo 2020 in Nesthy Petecio, earned seven gold medals. Kiyomi Watanabe looked almost too casual when she made her way through the women's judo. Junna Tsukii was a fire in karate; Teammate Jamie Lim was emotional. They also won gold. They will all shoulder a nation's Olympic hopes from here.

"We want to book 10 slots for the Olympics," said Philippine Olympic Committee President Abraham "Bambol" Tolentino. "Maybe more."

Yulo has already qualified for the Olympic Games, along with pole vaulter EJ Obiena, who also directed his event at New Clark City's Spanking and Modern Athletic Center.

Driven by this rapid start, the Filipinos never slowed down.

Well, not literally.

Kristina Knott dominated the 200-meter run when she and Obiena won eleven gold medals for athletics. Eric Cray was still king of the 400 hurdles, but a false start disqualification denied him the gold that anyone watching the sport wanted to see: the centerpiece of the men's 100m shot.

But with events like Tanzsport and Arnis, which turned out to be a gold mine, the Philippines was not contested. The final scoring included 149 gold medals, 117 silver medals and 120 bronzes. Media attention may have given the impression that some gold medals shone brighter than others – basketball, boxing, James Deiparine's drought-end, record-breaking swimming breast gold, karate, yulo, taekwondo, wong and the triathletes received a lot of headlines – but where the most important thing was that every gold was equally important in the medal ranking.

As is tradition, there would always be silver that shimmers like gold.

And volleyball made sure of that. Surprise, it wasn't the women's team.

The men's national team shocked multiple champions Thailand in the semi-finals and was also a champion in the heart of the Filipino fans after the destruction written by Indonesia in the championship game. The men's team got the spotlight from a women's squad filled with superstars without a medal and without a win. And it forced the women's team into a moment of introspection.

"The veterans of the [national] team have only one wish," said skipper Aby Maraño. "That we unite because we want a better ending for [our team]."

"The men's team [proved] because they have the unity that a sport needs [to succeed internationally]", said superstar Alyssa Valdez.

Two leagues are clearly a disadvantage for women's volleyball and it remains to be seen whether the lesson from the SEA games will be observed.

Basketball was also a highlight for the Philippines team. Surprise, it wasn't the men's team.

The women's team, which had been shaken several times – often heartbreakingly – by the gods of the SEA Games, finally took matters into their own hands and raged in full court basketball until the country's first women's gold. The Gilas Pilipinas women had previously won the first gold for the country in basketball when they started the 3 × 3 event.

And even when Gilas Pilipinas ran away with the men's gold medal as expected after dismantling Thailand in the championship game between 115 and 81, Tim Cone pointed to the other team on the podium that should be mentioned.

"I think that's the story of today. I think the women who win the gold are really the story today, not us," said the Gilas head coach. "It was just a big surprise at first, Beating Malaysia and then turning around and beating Thailand – both were gold medalists. It's just great. I think there should be more talk than we win. "

Hopefully this conversation will continue until the women's game reaches its own league.

What is certain, however, is that the Philippine dominance of the SEA Games will be talked about for a long time. The chairman of the Filipino Sports Commission, Butch Ramirez, will probably not forget this staging for a long time. The other time the Philippines celebrated a gold rush at the SEA Games was in 2005 when the country won 112 gold medals as a host.

Ramirez was then Chef de Mission of Team Philippines. That year he was Chef de Mission again. But even he knows that his Midas touch will fade in the two-year meeting compared to when the country will finally break a gold drought at the Olympics.

"That should be our next focus now," said Ramirez.

The Philippines team hope for an even more historic triumph in Tokyo from their home win.

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