Filipino Olympian profile: Unlikely rise to stardom takes skateboarder Didal to Tokyo

Manolo Pedralvez

Posted at Jul 21 2021 10:41 PM | Updated as of Jul 22 2021 06:47 AM

For many Filipino sports fans, female street skateboarder Margielyn Arda Didal was a virtual unknown, the national team’s best kept secret, entering the 2018 Asian Games.

In the skateboarding world, however, Didal was already a proven article, making her presence felt in two major international meets before she made her Asian Games debut at Jakabaring Sports City Skatepark in the South Sumatran provincial capital of Palembang in Indonesia.

Ranged against an elite field, the petite and perky Cebuana placed 8th in the Street League Pro Open women’s finals in London in May 2018, duplicating her feat at the X Games Minneapolis women’s street qualifiers 2 months later. 

On the strength of those performances, Didal emerged as the favorite in the women’s street skateboarding in Indonesia that was also making its maiden appearance in the continental sports showcase.

Performing with joyous — some say, near-reckless — abandon, she stamped her class among the nine entries, romping off with the mint with a runaway score of 30.4 points in her spectacular Asiad debut.

Punctuating her every run and trick with a dab — the bow-and-arrow pose popularized by Jamaican sprint legend Usain Bolt — she easily became the arena’s crowd darling. 

Without protective gear except for a cap worn in reverse, Didal put an exclamation point to her performance with an acrobatic “backside 50/50, 360-degree flip out,” an eye-popping trick that she did for the first time in an international meet. 

Japan’s Iza Kaya was a distant second with 25.0 points, while 12-year-old Indonesian prodigy Bunga Nyimas was third with 19.8 points.

It was a heartwarming triumph for the athlete, who learned the sport at 13 with an old skateboard given by her coach, Dani Bautista, who discovered her while she was with her mother selling “kwek-kwek” (boiled quail eggs deep-fried in flour batter) outside the Concave Skatepark in Lahug, Cebu City. 

DISCOVERED IN CEBU CITY

“Margie took one look at my skateboard and tried it out. I knew then she had a knack for the sport,” said Bautista, of the street kid turned prodigy, competing often against boys until she surpassed them in both skill and ability. 

Recognizing her family’s sacrifices, Didal said she used her P2 million incentive from the Philippine Sports Commission to set up a business, “since I won’t be a skateboarder forever.”

Her Asian Games success transformed the then 19-year-old Cebuana skate phenom into a sports sensation overnight.

Former Philippine Olympic Committee Ricky Vargas, who arrived just in time from Jakarta to see Didal win gold, prevailed upon her to stay longer in Indonesia and was flown back to the Indonesian capital to be the flag-bearer of the national squad at the closing ceremonies of the Asian Games. 

The bubbly Didal endeared herself to her legion of new fans even more in convincing President Rodrigo Duterte to drop protocol and dab with her during the courtesy call of the national team at Malacañang. 

OLYMPIC DREAMS

Having conquered the continent, she disclosed shortly after her unforgettable Asian Games outing that she had set her sights at qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

“I want to earn qualifying points for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games,” said Didal of the process of earning a slot in the event making its debut in the Olympics.

Still on a roll three months later, she followed her Asian Games victory in topping the Exposure Street Pro, an Olympic ranking event, earning 600 points in the process in the event staged in Los Angeles.

The accolades kept on pouring for Didal, who capped her banner year by being included in the distinguished list of the world-renowned American magazine Time as among its “25 Most Influential Teens of 2018.” 

In recognizing the Filipina skateboarder, the only Asian in the group, Time said she was among those chosen because “we consider accolades across numerous fields, global impact through social media and overall ability to drive news.” 

In the Time interview, Didal was clear about not only qualifying for the Olympics but also that “going to be the big goal in my life to get that gold medal,” hoping to use the feat “to build a new generation of (Filipino) skaters for the future.” 

She renewed her Olympic quest in a busy 2019, seeing action in nine qualifying competitions, highlighted by a victory in the Exposure Women’s Street Open in November to garner 600 ranking points. 

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SWEET 30th SEA GAMES WIN

But Didal’s sweetest win came a month later during the 30th Southeast Asian Games in front of hometown fans, who witnessed her dazzling form in sweeping the women’s street and Game of Skate events at the Tagaytay City Skatepark. The street victory garnered her 300 points.

Dissatisfied with the skateboarding facilities in the country, team manager Anthony Claravall chose to have the talented athlete and other national team members train in Hong Kong in early 2020 where he was based as New Balance regional marketing manager at that time.

One Skatepark in Hong Kong was designed by the same company and similar to the facility to be used in the Tokyo Summer Games, according to Claravall. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic creeping over the globe in early 2020, the Cebuana skateboarder managed just one tournament in the US.

She earned 980 points for her second, fourth and third place, respectively, the qualifiers, semifinals and finals of the Tampa Pro Women’s Open in Florida that ended on March 2.

Although not competing actively as the other Olympic hopefuls, Didal still managed to remain in No. 13 in the World Skate Olympic qualifying rankings, within the top 16 of the list that would qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games by the cut-off date in June 2021.

MAINTAINING OLYMPIC RANKING

Due to the travel restrictions and problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the world skating body revised its Tokyo Olympic Games qualifying guidelines that basically enabled the Olympic aspirants to maintain their ratings in 2020. 

Scrambling to return to the Philippines, Didal managed to get back to her hometown just as the government imposed a nationwide lockdown in mid-March last year to stem the spread of the contagious and lethal COVID-19 virus.

“I was stuck in the Philippines in our hometown without a park. I think I didn’t skate for three months since the start of the pandemic,” Didal recalled of her plight in a recent interview organized by Red Bull, one of her sponsors.

During those bleak months, Didal launched a food delivery business with her family to make ends meet while training on makeshift equipment just outside her house in a bid to keep her edge.

The skateboarder’s only other tournament in 2020 was the Exposure Best Skate Video Part Street 15 to 29 in November, finishing second overall out of 19 entries to gain 300 points.

One of her sponsors built her a skatepark in Soul Sierra, Cebu near her home that was finished in the first quarter of 2021. It was custom-made to her specifications by drawing inputs from her experiences in overseas meets. 

“Training was very different during the pandemic because when we train we usually travel abroad. Most of the pandemic we’ve stuck in Cebu. The facility in Cebu really helped a lot. Without it there would have been no skateboarding,” Bautista said. 

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2020 ASIA SKATEBOARDING AWARDEE

Going into the homestretch of her Olympic qualifying drive, Didal got a huge morale boost when she was named with Japan’s Shin Sanbongi as the Asia Skaters of the Year for 2020 in the inaugural Asia Skateboarding Awards in March 2021.

Didal bested 60 entries all over the continent based on video clips across 6 categories. 

This was just the tonic she needed before competing in her last two Olympic qualifying competitions: the Dew Tour Street Championships at the new Lauridsen in Des Moines, Iowa from May 20 to 23 and World Skate Street Championships set May 30 to June 6 at the Foro Italico in Rome, Italy.

Performing in what reputedly is the biggest skatepark in the US, Didal gained 30 points with her 17th and 12th-place finishes in the Dew Tour Open qualifiers and semifinals, respectively. 

The top-3 finishers at the worlds would secure outright berths to Tokyo, and it seemed that Didal wasn’t up to task as she placed 17th in both the qualifying and semifinal rounds.

This was noticeable in the semis where she failed to score in the last 4 rounds of the 7-round stage, which coach Bautista said was a ploy to prevent the athlete from getting hurt.

“Because the course was really big, Margie wasn’t comfortable with it and we didn’t want to risk injury. Most of the other skaters were getting their tricks in the big section. But our main strategy for the world championships was to qualify, and we did,” Bautista explained.

True enough, the world skating body announced on June 9 that Didal was among the 19 athletes, including the gold, silver and bronze medalist at the worlds, who qualified for Tokyo. 

OLYMPIC DARK HORSE

Didal acknowledged being the dark horse in Tokyo, considering that the skateboarders from Brazil, Japan and the US were considered the pre-Olympic favorite for the gold based on their world rankings.

They include Brazilians Pamela Rosa, Rayssa Leal, Leticia Bufoni, who are ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 4, respectively, No. 3 Japanese Aori Nishimura, the world street champion, compatriot No. 5 Momiji Nishiya, who was runner-up to Nishimura at the worlds, and No. 6 Mariah Duran of the US.

“All of those countries have the best skateparks. They have their own facilities like everywhere you go. They can train without traveling. But I have to also stay positive. That I can do it,” Didal said with a hint of determination.

Before heading for Tokyo, Bautista said that he and his ward would train at the world-class The Cove Skatepark in Santa Monica, Calif. for at least 3 weeks to sharpen the athlete’s tricks. 

“A trick is a trick. It’s just like finding the right obstacle to do it in for the course in the Tokyo Olympics. That’s what we will be working on. We are going to find the obstacles closest to the course in the Tokyo Olympics,” he said.

While Bautista kept the athlete on a tight leash at the worlds, he expects the skateboarder to pull out all stops at the Arianke Urban Sports Park on July 26 during the Olympic women’s street skateboarding event. 

An unleashed and carefree Didal is always an awesome sight to behold, and, hopefully, it ought to be enough for Olympic gold.

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