SEA Games: ‘Fighting spirit’ buoyed undermanned Pinoy judokas

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at May 27 2022 07:49 PM

Thanks to Shugen Nakano (pictured, left) and Rena Furukawa, the national judo team held its own against the SEA Games competition. PSC/POC pool
Thanks to Shugen Nakano (pictured, left) and Rena Furukawa, the national judo team held its own against the SEA Games competition. PSC/POC pool

THE absence of two national team mainstays – both 2019 30th Southeast Asian Gold medalists – would have had a crippling effect on the national judo team competing in the 31st edition in Vietnam.

Instead, even without Tokyo Olympian Kiyomi Wanatabe, a four-time SEA Games champion, and back-to-back SEA Games gold medalist Mariya Takahashi, the Filipino judokas not merely survived but also thrived at the Hoài Đức District Sporting Hall in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.

The national judo squad stood proudly at second overall in the eight-nation tournament with 2 golds, 3 silvers and 1 bronze medal behind host Vietnam (6-2-3), and a leg up on third running Indonesia (1-0-3).

This standing was not too shabby at all to the 3 gold, 1 silver and 9 bronze medals that the country won in finishing third in the 2019 Philippine edition held at the Laus Group Event Center in San Fernando city, Pampanga.

Retaining his title in the men’s 66kg was Shugen Nakano, who was a picture of calm and poise in subduing hometown bet Hoang Puac Truong by ippon while Rena Furukawa, who had a bronze medal in the 2019 SEA Games, completed her redemption bid in ruling the women’s 57kg class.

Emerging as pleasant surprises were silver medalists Daryl John Mercado (men’s 55kg), John Viron Ferrer (men’s 90kg) and Khrizzie Pabulayan (women’s 52kg.), all Manila-based judokas; while Kesei Nagano, Shugen’s twin brother, had the fourth silver medal in the men’s 73kg class.

Worth noting was the fact that Mercado, Ferrer and Pabulayan lost to Vietnam in the finals of their respective weight divisions, according to Philippine Judo Federation Alexander “Ali” Sulit, “proving that we can hold our own against our regional rivals with the proper preparation and training.

“This just goes to show that with a little more improvement, we will be up there again.”

Sulit proudly pointed out that this was achieved with virtually no international exposure and actual workouts for the majority of the judokas for over two years due to the country’s COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

He said this was why he was grateful to the Philippine Sports Commission for the two-month bubble training the national team had at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex before heading to Vietnam.

“We are thankful to the PSC that they allowed us our bubble training and gave us the facilities to prepare for the SEA Games. This was definitely vital to our preparations,” Sulit stressed, adding that he was pleased and surprised by the spunky showing of the PH judokas in Hanoi. 

“I was surprised by the tenacity and ferocity of our judokas. Their fighting spirit was pretty impressive and awesome,” added Sulit, “and I am privileged to witness them all. Nakakabilib talaga. (It was absolutely astounding).”

He cited the never-say-die example of veteran Quillotes, 31, who fought an opponent in the preliminaries of the men’s 60kg division that went to an eight-minute overtime before finally losing a gallant battle.

“I told Bryan he had nothing to be ashamed of even if he did not win a medal. He showed that he had nothing to be sorry for. That his performance was something to be proud of. Nothing na dapat Ikahiya (Nothing to be ashamed of),” Sulit recalled telling the athlete.

“Ang ganda ng fighting spirit (The fighting spirit is superb). It is easy to get worn down by your opponent the moment your body wanes, your spirit wanes; it all goes down. At least I can honestly say that we don’t have a problem in this department.”

A judo instructor at Gunma University in Maebashi, Japan, Furukawa – speaking through coach Kodo Nakano, the elder brother of the Nakano twins – said that she was hit by jitters in her 2019 SEA Games debut but vowed to do better the second time around.

“This is why I am very happy to win this gold medal,” said Furukawa, whose mother was born in Davao, after beating Myanmar’s Chu Myat Noe Wai in the finals last May 19 in ending her nearly three-year wait for golden glory.

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With his mother Lorna, who was in Hanoi to witness his twin sons competing, as interpreter, Shugen said that he felt no pressure at all in going up against the hometown favorite in the battle for the gold medal.

“Composed po si Shugen kasi nanalo na po siya sa SEA Games sa Pilipinas in 2019 (Shugen was composed since winning in the SEA Games gold in 2019 in the Philippines). He knew how to handle pressure,” Mrs. Nakano quoted her son as saying.

Sulit also credited the camaraderie between the Tokyo-based judokas and coach and their Manila-based counterparts, saying: “All of us had only one identity. We are Filipinos and there is no distinction. It helped that our majority of those living in Japan also speak Tagalog.”

He likewise praised the coaching staff, which included former SEA Games gold medalists Gilbert Ramirez and Helen Dawa, for whipping the team into competitive shape despite the short preparation time.

“Much credit and appreciation should go to our coaching staff for taking good care of our team, and the results are all there to see,” Sulit said.

As a coach of the Ateneo Blue Eagles varsity squad, he said that what the Filipino judokas needed to work on more was their strength and conditioning in the face of their sturdier and beefier rivals. 

“Strength and conditioning in judo is very vital. We will look into that. Kailangan patigasin at palakasin pa ang kanilang katawan (Our judokas need to toughen up and strengthen their bodies more),” the judo honcho underscored.

He observed that “it was evident that some of their opponents were sturdier when our guys would pull in and spin a throw. Parang silang bumabangga sa pader (It was like they were hitting a wall).

“If the Rizal Memorial fitness gym is not available, then we will have to find alternatives to address this concern.”

He said the performances of the Filipino judokas in Hanoi augured well for their forthcoming international competitions next year in the Cambodia SEA Games and the rescheduled Hangzhou Asian Games. 

“In the meantime, these athletes deserve all the recognition, praise and appreciation that’s due them. What they have done despite the challenges they faced is truly admirable,” Sulit said.