MANILA, Philippines—A fighter. This is how the president of the country's judo federation has described Kiyomi Watanabe.
Watanabe, 24, is the first Filipina judoka to qualify for the Olympic Games. This also marks the third straight Olympics that the Philippines will send a judoka to the Games, after Tomohohiko Hoshina in London 2012 and Kodo Nakano in Rio de Janeiro 2016.
Born in Cebu City to a Filipino mother and a Japanese father, Watanabe qualified for the Tokyo Games via a continental quota. A dominant force at the Southeast Asian level, she will compete in the -63kg division at the Olympics.
Dave Carter, the president of the Philippine Judo Federation (PJF), the sport's national governing body, has expressed his confidence that Watanabe can pull off a shocker at the Tokyo Games. He points to her run to the silver medal in the 2018 Asiad in Jakarta as proof that Watanabe can keep up with the best, while also touting her remarkable fighting spirit.
"Hindi po marami ang nakabalita noon, noong na-injure si Kiyomi," Carter said during an appearance at the Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) Forum last month.
Watanabe dislocated her left arm in February 2020, while competing at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam.
"We don't mind saying that now, dahil right now eh OK na po ulit si Kiyomi. Noong nangyari po ang dislocation na 'yun, and I saw the video, talaga namang kumalas po 'yung braso ni Kiyomi, 'yung left arm niya," Carter recalled.
Yet he could not help but be amazed as, just after two or three weeks, Watanabe was back in the gym, lifting weights.
"Ibang klase ang fighting spirit ni Kiyomi," he said.
This fighting spirit will serve Watanabe well as she competes in her maiden Olympics, especially as she expects to run into some of the fighters that she previously faced in the Asian Games.
Among them is Japan's Nabekura Nami, ranked fifth in their weight division, who defeated Watanabe in the final in Jakarta.
"Lahat po, posible," Carter said of Watanabe's chances. "Mahirap naman po 'pagka sinabi natin ngayon na hindi kaya ni Kiyomi, tapos eh sorpresahin po tayo niyan pagdating noon."
"Hindi po natin nililimitahan itong kakayahan nitong ating manlalaro. Dahil, malakas po itong player natin na ito, pati po 'yung puso niyan, talagang fighter po ito," he guaranteed.
Watanabe, who has won 4 gold medals in the Southeast Asian Games, has kept a low profile throughout the build-up to the Olympics. But according to Carter, her preparations have been going well; last month, she and her coach trained at the Yamanashi Prefecture. She has also been sparring regularly with male judokas at the Waseda University where she studies.
Even before she competes, all eyes will already be on Watanabe as she is one of the country's flag-bearers at the Opening Ceremonies, along with boxer Eumir Felix Marcial.
Watanabe's campaign starts on the morning of July 27 with the round-of-32. If all goes well, Watanabe will compete again in the evening for a place in the podium.
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