A look back: Filipino athletes who excelled in 2020

The sporting world is just one of the victims that had to be put on hold for the sake of safety against the coronavirus pandemic.

The efforts of doctors, scientists, frontliners and global leaders served as glimmer of hope. Eventually, people were able to adapt to the "new normal" despite the dangers brought by the virus.

The "new normal" was also applied to the sporting landscape which was frozen for a couple of months. Training innovations were introduced as athletes and leagues carried on with their purpose.

And for some Filipino athletes, continuing the sports is like trying to find the silver lining in these trying times.

Manila Bulletin compiled a list of athletes who bannered the Philippine flag in a year that was full of adversity and uncertainty.


EJ Obiena

EJ Obiena
Philippines' top pole vaulter EJ Obiena (Photo by TED ALJIBE / AFP, File)

EJ Obiena, the first Filipino athlete to qualify in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, hauled seven medals in 2020 despite the challenges he faced training in Formia, Italy amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the 2019 Southeast Asian Games last December, Obiena returned to competition in August and captured silver medal in the 13 Triveneto Meet in Trieste, Italy.

He followed it up with another silver in the "Who's the Finest Pole Vaulter?" virtual competition before capturing a bronze medal in the star-studded IAAF World Diamond League Athletics in Monaco.

After a month of straight tournaments, the 25-year-old Obiena bagged his first gold medal of the season after beating former Olympic medalists in the 59th Ostrava Golden Spike tournament in Czech Republic last September.

Obiena wrapped it up with back-to-back bronze medals in the Poznan Athletics Grand Prix and in the elite IAAF Rome Diamond League back in Italy. In the Rome Diamond League, Obiena posted his season-best 5.80 meters.


Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings

pba ginebra
The Barangay Ginebra Gin Kings hoist the Jun Bernardino Perpetual Trophy. (PBA Images)

The Barangay Ginebra San Miguel Kings became the first champion of the inaugural PBA bubble season last December in  Clark, Pampanga.

Ginebra lived up to its moniker and was named new kings of the Philippine Cup, capturing its first All-Filipino title since 2007 and 13th overall PBA championship.

Veteran guard LA Tenorio bagged the Honda-PBA Press Corps Finals Most Valuable Player after averaging 13.6 points and 6.2 assists in the commanding 4-1 series. It was also Tenorio's first All-Filipino title since entering the PBA in 2006.

Coach Tim Cone, meanwhile, added more accolades on his resume after claiming a record-extending 23rd PBA crown. Cone earned his fifth title as Ginebra mentor and broke his tie with the great Robert Jaworski, who was a playing coach back then.

Jack Animam

Former National University Lady Bulldogs standout Jack Animam took her talents in Taiwan and is currently playing for the Shih Hsin University Tigers.

Animam is averaging 15.9 points, 11.3 boards, 2.4 steals and 2.3 blocks for the Tigers, the league leaders in the University Basketball Alliance.

The Tigers remained undefeated in seven games as Animam posted 16 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks against University of Taipei before the league went on a holiday break.

Kai Sotto

Kai Sotto (Photo from Chooks to Go)

At 18 years old, Filipino basketball prodigy Kai Sotto has accomplished several achievements as a young athlete that you could have imagined.

As he continues to train in the NBA G League with Team Ignite, Sotto is taking the necessary stepping stones in reaching his long-time dream of playing in the NBA.

Read: Kai Sotto doesn’t just want to be the 1st homegrown Pinoy in the NBA. Find out what else he wants

Coached by three-time NBA champion Brian Shaw, Sotto has displayed his improved game since moving to the United States. Even Shaw believes that Sotto has yet to unleash his full potential, drawing comparison from Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic.

In the recent scrimmages with NBA G League veterans, the former Ateneo standout has been limited in terms of scoring but delivered on the defensive end and showed that he's more than just a center with his flashy passing and dribbling skills.

Outside of basketball, Sotto recently launched his clothing brand "Kaiju" and is set to open his sports academy "Kaiju Academy" is set to open at the Spooky Nook Sports Champion Mill Complex, the largest indoor sports complex in North America late next year.

The former Gilas Youth member also made himself available for Gilas Pilipinas, making it his debut appearance for the men's national basketball team. It opened the possibility of Sotto playing for the third and final leg of the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers in February in a bubble setup in Clark, Pampanga and in different qualifying tournaments leading to the 2023 FIBA World Cup co-hosted by the country alongside Japan and Indonesia.

Thirdy Ravena

thirdy ravena
Photo from San-En Neophoenix

Thirdy Ravena made it to the headlines after announcing his commitment to the San-En NeoPhoenix in the Japan B. League instead of declaring for a draft in the PBA.

Ravena, nonetheless, pushed through with his plans and shone bright in the NeoPhoenix as the first player in B.League history under the Asian Player Quota program.

On his debut game, Ravena left a lasting impression after chalking up 13 points, two rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes of play for an 83-82 victory against the Susanoo Shimane Magic, marking San-En's second win through 11 games last November.

Before catching COVID-19, Ravena is averaging 12.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists in five games.

Read: Thirdy Ravena recovers from COVID-19, rejoins Neophoenix practice

In his most recent game as of this writing, absorbing an 86-79 loss to Albirex Niigata, Ravena came off the bench and tallied 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting with four rebounds and one assist in almost 18 minutes.

Vanessa de Jesus

Vanessa de Jesus' freshman campaign with the Duke Lady Blue Devils was cut short after the team decided to scrap its season on Saturday (Manila time) due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Filipino-American guard has averaged 12.0 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.8 rebounds in four outings.

Prior to the decision, the Duke women's basketball team holds a 3-1 record after suffering its first loss of the season against the Louisville Cardinals. The Lady Blue Devils cited COVID-19 positives cases before halting its basketball activities.


Eumir Felix Marcial

Olympic-bound boxer Eumir Felix Marcial (Screengrab / PSA)

Tokyo Olympic-bound Eumir Felix Marcial made a successful professional boxing debut and outclassed American Andrew Whitfield early this month in California.

The Zamboanga-native slugger got the nod of all three judges with 40-36 for the unanimous decision.

The hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic became an eye-opener for Marcial, who eventually decided to sign a promotional deal with Manny Pacquiao's very own MP Promotions last July. He received additional training from veteran boxing mentor Freddie Roach in preparation for next year's Tokyo Olympics.

Marcial punched his way for an Olympic berth in the third round of the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifying tournament in Amman, Jordan before bagging the gold medal in the middleweight division last March.

Irish Magno

Alongside Eumir Felix Marcial, Irish Magno is one of the Filipino boxers who slugged it out in the Asia-Oceania Olympic Qualifying Tournament last March.

Magno secured a ticket to the Tokyo Olympics, which was postponed to July next year due to the coronavirus pandemic, after dominating Somaiya Qosimova of Tajikistan.

Magno was denied an outright entry following the quarterfinals loss but winning the boxoff with Qosimova for the six slots in the flyweight made Magno the first Filipina boxer to qualify to the Olympics.

John Riel Casimero

john riel casimero
John Riel Casimero wears a pair of shades and mask while his arm was raised by referee Steve Willis following his third round TKO win over Duke Micah. (Photo from Showtime Boxing)

John Riel Casimero defended his WBO bantamweight belt after a third-round technical knockout win over Ghanian slugger Duke Micah in Connecticut last September.

Casimero, who improved to a 30-4 record, knocked down Micah in the second outing before punishing him the following round which forced referee Steve Willis to stop the fight at 0:54.

Read: Casimero taunts Inoue: ‘Kahit papa pa niya referee lalabanan ko siya’

The Ormoc-native boxer has set sights on unified bantamweight titleholder Naoya Inoue of Japan for his next fight.

Pedro Taduran

Pedro Taduran barely kept his IBF mini flyweight title after a fourth-round technical draw over Mexican challenger Daniel Valladares last February, before the coronavirus pandemic put the sporting world at a standstill.

Taduran engaged in a bloody and action-bout against Valladares, who got the nod of one of the judges. Taduran, fortunately, earned two draws from the remaining judges for a 14-2-1 record.

Reymart Gaballo

Reymart Gaballo took home the interim WBC bantamweight title after a split decision win over Emmanuel Rodriguez of Puerto Rico in Connecticut last week.

The win made Gaballo, who remained unscathed in 24 fights, the latest Filipino to join in the long list of international champions in the boxing scene.


James De Los Santos

james de los santos
Photo from James De los Santos

Filipino Karateka James De los Santos became the World No. 1 in the men's e-kata category of the World Karate Foundation and bagged a total of 36 gold medals in numerous tournaments.

In December alone, De los Santos ended his 2020 breakout campaign after a perfect gold medal haul in 11 tournaments.

Read: De los Santos hopes to duplicate success next year

De los Santos, who currently has 13,745 points, ruled the 1st Euro Grand Prix and the 2nd e-Karate Games 2020 last October to take the No. 1 spot over Eduardo Garcia of Portugal.


Joshua Pacio

ONE strawweight champion Joshua Pacio (ONE Championship Images)

Team Lakay's Joshua Pacio defended his ONE Championship strawweight belt against former champion Alex Silva of Brazil last January.

The Team Lakay stalwart, who improved to a 17-3 record, scored a split decision win over Silva in front of the Filipino crowd at the Mall of Asia Arena in Pasay City.

Pacio, who will turn 25 next month, also became the lone Filipino to land spots on ESPN's Under-25 (No. 24) and long-time combat sports publication Black Belt Magazine's list of top MMA fighters (no particular order).


Yuka Saso

Filipino-Japanese Yuka Saso finished in joint fifth in her first professional appearance in the Earth Mondahmin Cup last June.

But two weeks later, in August, the 19-year-old Saso made a name for herself after ruling the NEC Karuizawa 72 to capture her first title as a pro golfer.

Read: Golf in 2020: Breakout year for Saso, Pagdanganan on foreign soil

Another two weeks have passed and Saso bagged the Notori Ladies Golf Tournament Trophy to lead Japan Tour's money list order with approximately P38 million from tournament prize money.

Bianca Pagdanganan

Bianca Pagdanganan announced in early January that she will turn professional and it slowly came to fruition after earning her highest finish in the LPGA Tour last October.

The 23-year-old Pagdanganan finished third place in the LPGA Drive on Championship and garnered about P9.8 million in her rookie career.


Carlos Yulo

Carlos Yulo during the SEA Games Artistic Gymnastics qualification at Rizal Memorial Sports Coliseum, December 1, 2019 (MB File Photo)

Gymnastics world champion Carlos Yulo bagged a couple of bronze medals this year, which serves as a springboard ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Yulo settled for third place in the 2020 All-Japan Senior Gymnastics Championship at the Takasaki Arena in Japan last September before adding two more in the 74th All-Japan Gymnastics Championships in the same venue.

Read: Yulo climbs to No. 1 spot in floor exercise

Training under Japanese coach Munihero Kugimiya, Yulo was in joint No. 1 in the floor exercise apparatus on the latest rankings by the International Gymnastics Federation.

Yulo and Olympian Rayderley Zapata of Dominican Republic both scored 70 points based on their competitions since 2018.


Alex Eala

Alex Eala
Alex Eala

Alex Eala, the top Filipino junior netter, has achieved numerous feats in 2020 despite the challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic.

Eala reached a career-high No. 2 in the world tennis junior ranking after an impressive showing at the 2020 French Open at Roland Garros in Paris, France.

Prior to that, Eala was seeded No. 2 in the junior girls' tournament of the French Open where she lasted until the semifinal match against local bet Elsa Jacquemot.

Before jumping to No. 2, the 15-year-old Filipino tennis prodigy claimed the No. 4 spot after capturing the 2020 Australian Open Junior Championships girls doubles title in Melbourne with Indonesian partner Priska Madelyn Nugroho.

Eala also reached the third round of the Australian Open but yielded to Cody Wong Hong-yi of Hong Kong in the girls singles.


Hidilyn Diaz

hidilyn diaz
Filipino weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (MB File Photo)

2016 Rio Olympics silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz ruled two events in 2020 in the hopes of bolstering her Olympic grade ahead of next year's Games.

Diaz bagged three gold medals after dominating the 55-kg women's division of the 2020 Weightlifting World Cup in Rome, Italy (2020 Roma World Cup) last January before Team HD got holed up Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia due to the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fast forward to July, Diaz delivered anew for the Philippines after reigning in the 59-kg division of the online event Eleiko Email International Lifters Tournament