High hopes for PH track and field athletes in Rio

ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jul 20 2016 03:17 PM

Filipina long-jumper Marestella Torres-Sunang along with her sponsor, Jim Lafferty of the Adopt-an-Olympian program. Richard Esguerra, ABS-CBN Sports

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (PATAFA) on Tuesday formally sent off the three athletes who will represent the country in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on August 5.

Long-jumper Marestella Torres-Sunang, trackster Eric Shaun Cray, and marathoner Mary Joy Tabal are all bona fide qualifiers in their respective events.

In previous Olympics, the world governing body of track and field seeded one athlete per gender per country, regardless if they met the qualification, just to make sure that at least two athletes represent each country.

Torres-Sunang, Cray, and Tabal, however, all qualified on their own merit.

(READ: Table tennis star Ian Lariba named PHI flag-bearer in Rio)

Torres-Sunang, a four-time Southeast Asian Games gold medalist, reached the qualifying mark in dramatic fashion when she jumped 6.72-meters in the 2016 Kazakhstan National Athletics Championship in Almaty earlier this month.

The 35-year-old Torres-Sunang had missed the 6.70-mark in her first five jumps, but came through with a personal-best 6.72-m in her sixth and final jump to not only reach the qualifying mark, but set a new national and Southeast Asian record.

"It has to be one of the greatest clutch performances I've ever seen in over 35 years," said Jim Lafferty, the track and field advocate behind the Adopt An Olympian program, who has helped Torres-Sunang maintain a world-class level even towards the tail-end of her storied career.

Cray, for his part, won the gold in the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter hurdles in the 2015 SEA Games, setting records in both events. Born in Clark, Pampanga, Cray is currently training in his hometown of El Paso, Texas.

Cray, like Torres-Sunang, is part of the Adopt-An-Olympian program. Under the program, Lafferty – also the chief executive of the British American Tobacco in the Philippines – invested in the athletes, providing them not only with allowances and training expenses, but making sure they are trained holistically.

"In my case, it's personal. It's not a corporate effort," said Lafferty, a former track star in the United States. "We provide financial support, above and beyond what is provided by the PSC (Philippine Sports Commission), POC (Philippine Olympic Committee), and the NSAs (national sports associations)."

Tabal, meanwhile, qualified to the Olympics after logging in a time of 2 hours, 43 minutes, and 29 seconds at the Ottawa Marathon in Canada in May. She earlier targeted the Olympic qualifying mark in the Boston Marathon, but succumbed to cramps and missed the cutoff.

Tabal is not part of the Adopt-an-Olympian program but similarly receives support from the Motor Ace Group, led by Jonel Borromeo. Borromeo's group is now footing the bill for Tabal's training in Japan.

"It's not my program," Lafferty said, "but Mary Joy Tabal has a fabulous sponsor who is bringing the same type of dynamic. What Mr. Borromeo brings to her is every bit as good as what the program could have done."

With Tabal, Torres-Sunang, and Cray all undergoing intensive training and being supported by the private sector, the PATAFA is confident that all three athletes will have strong showings in Rio de Janeiro -- and that this is just the beginning of the rise of Philippine athletics.

"We are sending three Olympians," said PATAFA president Dr. Philip Ella Juico. "Jim says this has been the best since 1984 or 1988, and we intend to send more in the years to come."

"We think this can be replicated, or even surpassed, with the partnership with the government and the private sector," he added. -- With a report from TJ Manotoc, ABS-CBN News

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