Filipinos who know their sports history recognize that it was swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso who gave the Philippines its first Olympic medal—a bronze in the 200-meter breaststroke in the 1928 Games in London.
That was four years after an obscure sprinter by the name of David Nepomuceno opened the door for the Filipino athletes’ participation in the every-four-year event among the universe’s finest athletes in 1924 in Paris.
The pride of Piddig town in Ilocos Norte repeated the feat four years later in 1932 in Los Angeles where he spearheaded the country’s richest haul of three bronze medals in the “Greatest Sports show On Earth,” finishing third, too, in his favorite event.
High jumper Simeon Toribio and featherweight fighter Jose “Cely” Villanueva duplicated the Ilocano tanker’s feat by romping off a bronze each in the same year.
But perhaps only few know that Yldefonso was the only Filipino athlete to be elevated to swimming’s Hall of Fame, an honor which was bestowed on him by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) five years ago in 2009.
In handing the honor to Yldefonso, FINA also took notice of the Filipino’s unfamiliar style, now known as “Yldefonso Stroke” that has been adapted by pint-sized swimmers, especially Asians, particularly the Japanese.
Not many know too that Yldefonso, as a member of the famous Philippine Scouts even when he was still active as an athlete, put his life on the line in the field of combat in defense of the country’s Independence during the Filipino-Japanese War.
Yldefonso, in fact, died in the infamous Capas Concentration Camp in Tarlac along with his comrades during the long, murderous Tarlac-Bataan Death March perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Army.
Eight other Filipino Olympians, who represented the country in several Summer Games, died serving the country during the war. They were track stars Miguel White and Lt. Nemesio de Guzman, , basketball players Jacinto “Jumping Jack” Ciria Cruz and Amador Obordo, another swimmer Abduramam Ali, Lt. Otoniel Gonzaga in shooting, Lt. Simplicio de Castro in boxing and Lt. Enrique Jurado in wrestling.
White, a native of Legaspi City, Albay, won the country’s lone medal in the 1936 Berlin Games, winning the bronze in the 400-m low hurdles, while owning the distinction of sharing the Olympic stage with legendary track star Jesse Owens of the United States.
White, who had joined the guerilla movement during the war, was killed by the Japanese forces d somewhere in the Southern Luzon-Bicol area.
Ciria Cruz and Obordo, meanwhile, were members of the Philippine basketball team that ended up third the first time the basketball was held in Berlin in what could have been a silver medal had it not for the quirk in the format.
The national quintet, nicknamed as “The Islanders” by appreciative German fans because of their in and off-court demeanor, won all, except one of their assignments, losing only to eventual champion, the United States.
Skippered by then senator-to-be Ambrosio “Paddy” Padiila, other members of the squad, coached by FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Hall of Famer Dionisio “Chito” Calvo, were Primitivo Martinez, Charlie Borck, Jesus Marzan, Franco Marquicias, Fortunato Yambao, Bibiano Ouano and Johnny Worrel.
Cruz, who incidentally, was named co-Outstanding Athletes of Half-A-Century by the PAAF along with Yldefonso and football ace Virgilio Lobregat, was executed by Japanese soldiers in Bayombong, Nueva Ecija in 1944.
Of the 52 in the list, 19 were international campaigners in athletics, 10 in swimming, nine in baseball, five in basketball, three in boxing, two in football, two in tennis and one each in wrestling.
Lt. De Guzman of the Philippine Army was White’s teammate in the national athletics contingent in the 1936 Games of the Olympics where Lt. Gonzaga and De Castro both saw action. Ali was Yldefonso’s swimming teammate in the IXth Olympiad in 1932 in L.A.
De Guzman finished third in the trials of the 100-meter and failed to make it to the semifinal round as only the top two finishers qualified. He was fourth in his heat in the 200 meters and was again left out of the next round.
Gonzaga wound up 31st in the target pistol (ring) event, the same finish in a tie for the 31ST and 32nd in the miniature rifle event. Ali matched De Guzman’s third place finish in trials of the 100-meter freestyle event and, likewise, failed to make it to the semis.
Jurado, who wrestled as a bantamweight, lost his first two assignments. Boxer De Castro, on the other hand, defeated Saucassiabi of Luxemburg in the opening round but bowed to Frenchman Tritz in his next bout.
Besides White and De Guzman, track and field athletes, who died in defense of the country’s freedom were Miguel Sugeco, Sgt. Domingo Espanol, Lt. Jose Antonio, Mayor Emilio Bucoy, Wenceslao Bansale, Eliseo Razo, Civico Granado, Maximino Pasaporte, Albino Bangayan, Delfin Danguilan, Lt. Constantino Alambra, Moises Lucas, Felizardo Casia, Francisco Danao, Bartolome Barabad, Alejo Alvarez and Simon Santos.
Joining Yldefonso and Ali in the roster of swimmers who emerged as heroes both in the international field and in the battlefield were non-Olympians Rosendo Aguinaldo, Policarpio Tolentino, Donato Cabading, Miguel Bartolaso, Ulka Mangona, Jakaria Angkang, Bernardino Tugbo and Mauricio Guidote.
Outstanding baseball players who led the Philippine IX to six Far Eastern Games championships were Sgt. Aquilino Jacob, Cpl. Pablo Chu, Sgt. Gervacio Estorba, Atilano “Django” Rivera, Cacimiro Francisco, Ramon Oncinian, Toribio Oncinian, Regino Bertulfo and Cipriano Platon.
Rivera was the first Filipino ball player to see action in the rich and prestigious Japanese League but, ironically, was killed by Japanese soldiers when he returned home during the war.
Ramon and Toribio Oncinian were siblings of the more illustrious Armando, the pitcher who became famous when he struck out American baseball legend Babe Ruth during the U.S. Major League champion New York Yankees’ exhibition series against local teams in the 1930s.
Like Ciria Cruz and Obordo, Carlos Canillas, Albert Murrow and Robert Keesy also made their mark in many international basketball competitions.
Francisco Zarcal, a USAFFE member, and police officer Martin Roxas were the only other boxers besides De Castro whose names were etched on the bronze marker with Jose Miranda joining Lobregat as sports heroes in football.
The Lobregat football field in Makati where the statue of the late former Sen. Benigno Aquino, father of President P-Noy, is located, was named after soccer great Virgilio Lobregat.
Concepcion Santos-Cepeda, a nurse, is the 1921 national singles and doubles titleholder in tennis, was the only female athlete in the list. She was the sister of track and field honoree Simon Santos. Joining her in the list was another tennis player in Juan Ladaw.
In their honor, along with 42 other athlete-soldiers/scouts, the Philippine Amateur Athletic Federation (the ruling sports body at that time) installed a 33 x 24 inches bronze marker on July 17, 1951, containing their names on the left wall of the Rizal Memorial Coliseum façade in a ceremony presided over by PAAF president Jorge Vargas.
More than 50 sports association officials, along with their relatives, attended the unveiling of the marker. Letran College athletic moderator, Fr. Martin Diez, 0.P. assisted Vargas in the formal dedication.
Since then, however, the plaque had been ill-maintained and the names of the honorees barely readable.
When informed of the historical value of the marker, Philippine Sports Commission Chairman Ritchie Garcia, ordered the restoration of the signage in time for the commemoration of the 116th Anniversary of Philippine Independence Day on June 12.
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