DAGUPAN CITY — On July 26, 2021, weightlifting fairy Hidilyn Diaz etched her name in the annals of Philippine history as the first Filipino Olympian to win a gold medal.
With her victory, the entire country rejoiced. Diaz was showered with countless incentives — millions of pesos to boot, a lifetime’s worth of flights, petrol fuel, and a deluxe condominium in the heart of the nation.
But as we rejoice with her success, let us look back on the life of Teofilo Yldefonso, and how he brought prestige by becoming the first Filipino and Southeast Asian to win an Olympic medal — and eventually to be later known as the father of ‘modern breaststroke’.
Sadly, this man, who brought the Philippines to the Olympic stage, has no known grave — save for a humble monument in the plaza of his hometown in Ilocos Norte, and his etched name in the Walls of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery.
Born on November 5, 1903 in Piddig town in Ilocos Norte, to parents Felipe and Aniceta. He was the second of three siblings.
Sadly, his mother died while giving birth to their youngest brother, Teodoro. Felipe soon died when they were still young. Thus, Teofilo and his elder brother Vicente, had to rely on each other for support and survival, all the while taking care of the young Teodoro.
Teofilo and his siblings taught themselves to swim at the Guisit River nearby, which would gear him up for what’s to come.
On 1922, when he turned 18, Teofilo enlisted in the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. It was there that he was exposed to swimming, not just as a hobby and a skill, but as competition.
Shining career On 1923, he began joining various swimming competitions by joining in regional meets, which earned him medals — continuing to do so in his 16-year sporting career. He won gold during the Far Eastern Games, during the 200-meter breaststroke event, only to repeat the feat on 1927, 1930, and 1934.
Come 1928, Yldefonso represented the Philippines in the Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he bagged a bronze medal in the 200-meter breaststroke — being the first Southeast Asian and Filipino to earn a prestigious Olympic medal. He won another medal four years later, during the Olympic games in California, USA, in the same event.
He also bagged gold medals during the Philippines vs. Formosa Dual Meet on 1929, 1931, 1933, and 1937.
He once again competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but only placed seventh in the finals.
War and demise
Before war broke out, Yldefonso is already married with four children. He married his wife, Manuela Ella, on 1925, and had six children, Porfirio, Emilio, Felipe, Norma, Herminia, and Carmelito.
1941 marked the USA’s entry into the war when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As a member of the Philippine Scouts, Yldefonso also joined the fray, and battled the invaders.
On April 9, 1942, General Edward P. King decided to surrender the Bataan Peninsula to the Japanese after four long months of grueling combat. Following the surrender, Filipino and American troops were forced by the Japanese to take a brutal 105-kilometer walk from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga.
From there, the POWs were loaded into boxcars to Camp O’Donnell in Capas, Tarlac, which was captured by the Japanese and converted into concentration camp.
While Yldefonso survived the harsh treak, outliving several thousands of his compatriots, the camp conditions and inhumane treatment slowly killed him.
On June 19, 1942, Yldefonso, the Ilocano Shark, died, in the arms of his younger brother Teodoro, who was a medical corps worker — who Teofilo used to take care of when they were orphaned. He was 39.
According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), his Olympic Rival, Yoshi Tsuruta, who also became an army officer, learned of Yldefonso’s capture. As Lieutenant, he called for his rival’s release, but all too late.
There were disputing accounts on how Yldefonso died, but official records say he died from dysentery and blood poisoning, or septicemia.
His body was never found, as he was interred in a mass grave, along with other dead soldiers.
In 2010, Yldefonso was inducted into the ISHOF by the International Swimming Federation Because of his unorthodox ‘Yldefonso Style’ of swimming was so admired and imitated by modern-day swimmers, he was came to be known as the Father of Modern Breaststroke.
This style leveled the playing field, as small swimmers, particularly Asians, won their respective medals, adapted his style.
President Ferdinand Marcos also awarded Yldefonso the Presidential Award for Meritorious Service.
In 2006, a marker was erected in his hometown in Piddig, Ilocos Norte. His bust now stands in the town’s plaza, along with the NHCP marker.
One of his daughters, Norma, followed his footsteps — swim tracks rather, and won a silver medal in swimming at the Asian Games in 1954.
As Filipinos celebrate Hidilyn’s success, and while we may have had many a great people since then, let us never forget the past.