KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Sixteen-year-old judoka Mariya Takahashi may have been one of the breakout stars for Team Philippines in the 29th Southeast Asian Games, but for her own coach, the teenager's triumph in the women's -70kg division in judo was no surprise.
Competing in the SEA Games for the very first time, Takahashi was at a height disadvantage against every opponent she faced on Sunday afternoon, including Thailand's Surattana Thongsri – the five-time champion in their division.
But in a display of skill that belied her age, Takahashi defeated the 27-year-old Thai via ippon with still two minutes and 44 seconds to spare.
Her dominant victory may have come as a shock to spectators at KLCC's Hall 5, but not to national judo coach Rolan Llamas.
"Alam ko ang laro nito," Llamas said of the prodigy, whose mother hails from Davao.
"Noong nakuha ko siya, nilapit sa akin ng nanay kung pwedeng sumali," Llamas explained. "Masyadong bata, pero pinagbigyan ko rin. Debut niya dito. Ngayon lang siya na-expose sa SEA Games."
Llamas is hesitant to send Takahashi to the Asian Games next year immediately, citing her youth.
"Hindi pa hinog itong bata, kasi 16 (years old) lang siya… Tingnan natin," he said in a non-committal manner.
At the Southeast Asian level, however, Llamas is confident that Takahashi will only continue to rise in stature. He expects an even more impressive performance from the Filipino-Japanese judoka come 2019, when it is the Philippines' turn to host the biennial event.
"Hinahanda ko siya lalo na sa SEA Games natin sa Manila. Magugulat kayo," he said.
While Llamas is not too sure about Takahashi's participation in the Asian Games in Indonesia next year, Philippine Judo Federation president Dave Carter is already setting his sights on an even bigger goal for the judoka – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Takahashi, along with 21-year-old Fil-Japanese judoka Kiyomi Watanabe, has the potential to compete at the highest level, Carter said.
"She is also our brightest bet in the 2019 SEA Games, all the way to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics," Carter said of Takahashi.
Aside from all-out support from her federation, the Philippine Sports Commission also expressed its commitment to back her training while the Philippine Olympic Committee would recommend her for an athletic scholarship program, where she would be entitled to a $500 monthly allowance.
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