Those who heard it might have felt that national gymnastics chief Cynthia Carrion was pulling their leg when she announced in a recent sports media forum what gymnast Carlos Edriel Yulo intended to do in the Tokyo Olympics finally opening on July 23.
“What we are working on with Coach Munehiro Kugimiya is that he (Yulo) will win in a gold medal in the floor exercise, win a silver medal in the vault and that he will be in the finals of the parallel bars,” Carrion said without batting an eyelash at the Philippines Sportswriters Forum 2 weeks ago.
That Carrion, who has been the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines president for more than a decade, was confident that the diminutive dynamo would live up to her bold pronouncements for Tokyo was due to her first-hand knowledge and approach in nurturing the world-class athlete.
Yulo was born in humble surroundings in the crowded Leveriza community behind the historic Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila
It was his grandfather Rodrigo Frisco who brought the quiet yet frisky boy to the GAP training center inside the Rizal when he was 7 years old to see if he had the potential of becoming a national athlete.
“When I saw Caloy (Yulo’s nickname) for the first time with our coaches, he looked very promising so we took him in,” Carrion recalled of her prized protégé.
With proper training, Yulo’s precocious talent became evident when he began dominating the men’s artistic-gymnastics competitions in both the elementary and high-school divisions on the national level of the Palarong Pambansa.
But it wasn’t until Kugimiya, who entered the picture in 2015 through the assistance of the Japan Gymnastics Association, took over the GAP’s national men’s artistic gymnastics squad that Yulo found a Pygmalion to his Galatea.
Known as a taskmaster, Kugimiya is credited for coaching Reyland Capellan to the men’s floor exercise gold at the 2015 Singapore Southeast Asian Games, ending a 10-year-old drought for the country in the sport in the regional meet.
Pivotal Japan training
Seeing Yulo’s enormous potential, he urged the GAP, the sport’s national governing body, to have the gymnast train in Japan in 2016 to polish his skills against the best Japanese gymnasts, including his role model, former world and Olympic all-around champion Kohei Uchimura.
Despite the hardship of living on his own and the potential language problems, the athlete, only 16 then, decided to leave the Philippines for Tokyo for further intensive training with the GAP’s blessings and support from the Philippine Sports Commission plus private sponsors.
“Aside from living alone, the training was hard, super hard,” Yulo had said of his early training days in the Japanese capital under Kugimiya, who had a reputation of being a Prussian drillmaster.
Their initial partnership in international play produced a mint in the men’s parallel bars in the 2017 Asian junior artistic gymnastic championship in Bangkok, which was a first for a Pinoy gymnast and accomplished with severely sprained ankle.
The 2018 Asian Games was supposed to be a coming out party for Yulo, who was the top favorite to win the men’s floor exercise gold after topping the qualifying round, only to stumble and fall out of contention in the finals after executing a routine he was doing for the first time.
He would redeem himself a few months later in capturing the bronze medal in his pet event, a first for a Filipino gymnast, at the world championships in Doha, Qatar in October 2018.
The following year proved to be a banner one for the soft-spoken Filipino athlete.
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2019 Banner Year
Yulo opened his 2019 campaign with gold in the floor exercise in the first leg of the FIG World Cup Series in Melbourne, Australia, in February then followed it up with a bronze in the same event in the second leg in Doha the following month.
In September 2019, Yulo shared the golden spotlight with childhood icon Uchimura as they tied for first in the men’s floor exercise with identical scores of 14.800 at the All-Japan Seniors Gymnastics Championships.
He capped 2019 by capturing the men’s floor exercise gold medal at the 49th FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships on October 13 at the Hanns Martin Schleyer Halle in picturesque Stuttgart, Germany.
In a commanding performance, Yulo, who performed second-to-last among the eight finalists, scored 15.300 points, snatching the mint from Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat, the 2017 world floor exercise champ, who was relegated to runner-up honors with 15.200 points.
The gold capped his memorable campaign in Stuttgart after placing 18th in the all-around qualifiers earlier to become the country’s second Olympic qualifier after pole-vaulter Ernest John Obiena.
As an encore, Yulo wowed hometown fans at his 30th Southeast Asian Games debut two months later, grabbing 2 gold and 5 silver medals at the packed historic Rizal Memorial Coliseum in emerging as the country’s most bemedalled performer of the sportsfest.
Since then, the gymnast has been quietly fine-tuning his skills for his Olympic debut under Kugimiya’s tutelage, occasionally performing in All-Japan seniors gymnastics competitions to maintain his competitive edge.
Adding tricks to floor exercise routine
To keep his rivals second-guessing on what he is going to do at the Summer Games, Yulo skipped the men’s floor exercise and vault in last month 75th All-Japan competitions, taking home a bronze medal in the men’s parallel bars with a score of 14.996 points.
This was the same score by Japan’s Kazuma Kaya in bagging the bronze medal at the 2019 worlds in Stuttgart.
“Yulo told me that he saw all his Japanese rivals in the floor exercise and he still considers himself the best in the event, at least in Japan,” Carrion said of the event won by Japanese Kazuki Minami, who tallied 15.300 points.
To boost his gold-medal prospects in his pet event at the Summer Games, she said, Yulo has been trying to perfect the difficult triple back flip and incorporating it into his floor exercise routine.
“I saw him (Yulo) doing the routine in the video posted by coach Mune and it looked perfect to me. If he continues doing what he does in practice” she stressed. “Caloy already has the triple back flip and the two forward twirls pat in his floor exercise routine.
“And if he lands very well, then he’s got the gold. Nobody (else) can get that. That is the top skill.”
Yulo begins his Tokyo campaign with the qualifiers in the men’s all-around and six apparatus – floor exercise, rings, parallel bars, vault, pommel horse, and horizontal bar – on July 24, with the finals of the all-around on July 28 with the top 24 qualifiers.
Featuring eight finalists each, the medal play of the floor exercise, vault and parallel bars will be on Aug. 1, 2 and 3, respectively.
Together with the rest of the nation, Carrion is banking on Yulo, just like he did in Stuttgart two years ago, to spring for the gold medal in the Land of the Rising Sun.
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