"These inspiring journeys should serve as a model for all the other aspiring athletes in our midst."
We salute with a ringing MABUHAY our sports heroes: 19 year old Yuka Saso, the newest golf sensation, and our very own long-time world class chess champion Wesley So now competing as part of Team USA. Under the shadow of the worst pandemic in a century, Yuka and Wesley labored on to bring honor to the country despite the many challenges along the way. Not only did they hunger for more “playing time,” as it were, as the sports they were excelling in did not offer as many opportunities for practice and tournaments locally to hone their skills, the much-needed financial support to carry on and be exposed to the world, to get to the top of their respective games was hard to find. But in the end, the much-heralded duo managed to scramble, got the eyes of benefactors and proceeded to prove their worth among the world’s greatest.
The Fil-Japanese Saso, born and raised in San Ildefonso, Bulacan, who at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days matched the record of Korean golfing sensation Inbee Park as the youngest US Open women’s champion. She did so in remarkable fashion with that classic sudden death playoff win over Japanese Sasa Hataoka at the fabled Olympic Club in San Francisco. The ICTSI backed Saso displayed true blue championship poise and determination overcoming double bogeys in the fourth round to salvage a 73 and catch up with Hataoka who had four under 68 to force a playoff. She then proceeded to finish off Hataoka with a 10-foot birdie putt in Hole number 9, the third playoff hole, to bag the crown.
That remarkable feat made Saso an instant dollar millionaire with an LPGA Tour card to boot, giving her a five-year exemption for being a major winner. Saso’s well deserved win was a huge boost to our very own women golfers who have struggled for years to snatch a major win after those of the now retired Jennifer Rosales’ in the 2005 SBS Open and the Chick-fil-A Championship three years later in 2008. Having done so at such a young age, she will now be leading the charge of a new set of players out to conquer the world and make us all proud.
That next challenge comes just over a month from now with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics where she and her colleagues will once again compete with the world’s finest players. Acknowledging the trials ahead, Saso said “focus muna po ako sa upcoming tournaments but super excited po ako for the Olympics.” As the reigning Asian games champions, the Philippine team led by Saso will need all the prayers and support they can muster from the millions of our countrymen, here and abroad.
The saga of Wesley Barbosa So, the-multi awarded chess grandmaster who until 2014—when he opted to be an American citizen—competed brilliantly as part of Team Philippines, is as storied, maybe even more so with the twists and turns which came his way, as that of Yuka Saso. It is, of course, unfortunate that Wesley had to move to the United States to gain entry into the almost closed-ended world of global chess. But no matter: He remains our very own and we are proud of his victories.
First competing in an international tournament as part of Team Philippines at the tender age of 12, Wesley is the current US Chess Champion and the inaugural World Fischer Random Chess beating world number one Magnus Carlsen in the said tournament. As of March 2017, he was ranked number two in the world (after Carlsen) with an ELO rating of 2822, the fifth highest rated player in history.
A chess prodigy who started playing chess as a five-year-old competitor in a local chess tournament in 2008, Wesley became the youngest player to pass 2600 breaking the record of Carlsen himself. Since then, Wesley’s track has been on the upswing passing, 2700 in 2013 and 2800 ELO in 2017 making him the 11th player to pass that rating.
Since moving to the United States in 2014, Wesley had been raking in victories in many world-class tournaments, making him one of the most prodigious and accomplished players populating the rarefied top echelons of world chess. Immediately after his transfer to the United States, he won the Bilbao Chess Masters in 2015, the Grand Chess Tour title in 2016 and the 2017 Tata Steel Masters. In the 42nd Chess Olympiad, Wesley won the individual gold playing on board 3 of the winning team, Team USA.
In snaring the FIDE World Fischer Random Chess Championship in 2019, Wesley defeated Carlsen in an unprecedented lopsided 13 ½-2 ½ win something which even his opponent said was truly astounding. That win was soon followed by a blitz of other victories as he tied for first place in the September 19, 2020 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz Tournament and then ended up as runner up to Carlsen in the 2020 Chess24 Banter Series finals immediately after on September 30. Wesley’s winning ways last year continued almost uninterrupted as he emerged US Champion again in the inline competition on October 29 with a total score of 9/11 against a world class field. His blitzkrieg unbeaten performance has earned him praise worldwide with some commentators comparing it to the late Bobby Fischer’s dominating presence in the 1960s. His 9/11 performance ranks third in US National Championship history after Fischer’s 11/11 wins in 1963 and 1964 and his 9.5/11 win in 1966.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Wesley moved on to defeat Carlsen in the Skilling Open Championship on November 30, 2020 earning a modest US$30000 for the feat. Not content with that impressive win in the first round of the Champions Tour, Wesley again defeated his arch rival Carlsen last February 14 this year to win the Opera Euro Rapid, his second victory in the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour, an online tournament, in the just ended 2020-2021 season.
These inspiring journeys to world-class excellence of Yuka and Wesley should serve as a model for all the other aspiring athletes in our midst. That they labored on in the less glamorous and less travelled segments of the sporting world is a fitting tribute to their unmatched devotion to cultivate their God-given talents to the fullest. That drive, that strength of character, makes their winning ways even more fulfilling. They deserve our highest respect and accolade. No doubt they are our living heroes. Mabuhay.