CALL it doing a Yuka Saso in reverse, with the Philippines getting a pleasant break in top Canadian-born swimmer Kayla Nicole Sanchez publicly announcing last Thursday that she was switching nationalities to swim for the country in future major international competitions.
The 2021 US Women’s Open golf champion, Saso, whose mother is a Filipina and father Japanese, chose to become a Japanese citizen because of the reputed better opportunities the decision would bring.
On the other hand, Sanchez, a silver and bronze medalist for Canada in women’s 4x100m freestyle and 4x100m medley relays in the Tokyo Olympic Games last year, decided to become a Filipino citizen in a move that has stirred the Philippine swimming community in particular and local sports in general.
This decision was made with the full consent of the talented swimmer’s parents, Noel and Susana, who were both born and raised in Pampanga before migrating to Singapore, and finally landing in Canada to become citizens there.
Filled with patriotic pride, the Sanchezes were present when their daughter made the milestone announcement at the Philippine Olympic Committee headquarters inside the Philsports Complex in Pasig city.
Also just as proud beside them was Philippine Swimming Inc. president Lani Velasco, whose patient wooing of both parents and athlete was instrumental in pulling off the major sports coup.
“Kayla is a role model for Filipinos, not only in Canada, the Philippines but all over the world,” noted Velasco, who likewise thanked Swimming Canada, the Canadian swimming body, for the swimmer’s “seamless” transition to the Philippines.
Even Swim Canada featured Sanchez on its website, wishing her well.
“I’m proud of my heritage, I’m proud to be a Filipino, so I’m excited with this new journey,” said the winsome Sanchez in the presence of POC deputy secretary general Bones Floro, Velasco and her parents.
“I’m always striving to be better. I’m very hardworking and I want to achieve great things for the Philippines, so let’s say gold medal and you guys can hold me to it,” pledged the 5-foot-6 swimmer, who can start competing for the country as early as next year’s FINA World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan in July 2023 and, possibly, the rescheduled Hangzhou Asian Games in China.
But first she must complete her one-year residency in the country as required by the International Swimming Federation, the world swimming body known by its French acronym FINA, according to Velasco, who is also a ranking member of the Asia Swimming Federation Bureau.
Among her priorities, Sanchez, who trained at Swimming Canada's High Performance Center after the 2016 Rio Olympics, said was to find a place to stay near a pool where she intends to resume her intensive training.
While a three-year residency is required by FINA for swimmers switching nationalities to qualify for the Olympics, national coach Aldo Tong, who also handles the PSI’s technical matters, said that this could be reduced with the help of the world swimming organization and the POC.
So just how much of a prize catch is Sanchez?
Based on her current recorded times in various events posted on the FINA website, the freestyle and backstroke ace could have garnered a cluster of gold medals had she been eligible to compete for the Philippines in the last 31st Vietnam Southeast Asian Games.
Her personal bests of women’s 50, 100 and 200-meter freestyle events of 24.68 seconds, 53.12 seconds and 1:57.23, respectively, would surpass the gold-medal times of 25.12 in the 50 free by Thai Jenjira Srisaard, 55.60 seconds of Singapore’s Quah Ting Wen in the 100 free and 2:02.06 of teammate Gan Ching Wee in the 400 free.
Sanchez would have also swept the 50 (28.13), 100 (59.78) and 200-meter (2:16.66) backstrokes events won by Indonesian Masniari Wolf (29.21), compatriot Flairene Candrea Wonomiharjo (1:03.36) and Filipina Chloe Isleta (2:18.60).
Southeast Asian swimmers perhaps can feel relieved that this newly-minted Filipina swimming phenom won’t be around for the 32nd SEA Games scheduled May 5 to 16, 2023 in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh when she has not yet completed her residency.
But they ought to be wary of Sanchez when the 2025 Thailand SEA Games rolls around when she will ready to make a splash in the regional sportsfest still very much in her prime at 24.
At the continental level, her times of 24.68 and 53.12 seconds in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle events would have garnered her a silver and gold in the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta in both events won by Japan’s Rikako Ikee in times of 24.53 and 53.27 seconds, respectively.
Should the Hangzhou Asian Games be held after July 2023 when she has completed her residency, Sanchez and Rikako, who will both be 22 at that time, could be in for a thrilling two-way battle in both freestyle sprint events in the Asian sports showcase.
Velasco disclosed that Sanchez went in full immersion mode Friday, spending her first pool session with the members of the national junior team at the PhilSports Complex pool in Pasig City.
“She (Sanchez) is truly special,” noted the swimming head as the swimmer mingled with her new teammates, adding that her next stop was swimming with some of the PSI’s swimmers in Central Luzon at the New Clark City Aquatic Center in Capas, Tarlac Saturday.
A year can fly by so fast just like that, and expect Sanchez to begin making waves for the Philippines all the way, hopefully, to the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.