His first battle was inside his mother’s womb. He fought. He triumphed.
This is a man who survived abortion.
His childhood misfortunes made the man that he is now—a para swimming star, who sets sights on winning the country’s first gold medal in the Paralympics, the Olympics for athletes with disabilities.
Ernie Gawilan dives and swims into the pool for four hours every day to keep himself in good shape. He trains at the Philippine Sports Complex in Pasig City, where dormitories for national athletes like him are also located.
Despite his small stature—about four stacked 1.5 liters of Coke—Ernie brought pride to the country for being one of several Filipinos to win gold in the Asian Para Games, where para athletes across the continent face off.
Last October, the speedy swimmer Ernie clocked 2:52.3 in the men’s 200-meter individual medley, ahead of Chinese Taipei’s Chen Liang-da by 3.47 seconds. His victory has ended our gold medal-drought since the establishment of Asian Para Games in 2010.
As he gained momentum, he bagged two other gold medals and two silvers. More impressively, Ernie set a record in the 400-meter freestyle finals—twice—at 4:56 and 4:51.
He has 15 gold medals in his belt now, with four silvers and five bronzes.
Ernie has also achieved his dream of competing in the Paralympics as he vied in the 400-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, and 100-meter backstroke at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Brazil.
And there’s no stopping Ernie. The 27-year-old para swimming team captain seeks to add another feat to his long list of achievements.
He is under intensive training for the World Para Swimming Championships, his ticket to the next Summer Paralympics that will be hosted by Tokyo in 2020.
The pool wonder aims to capture our country’s first gold at that.
Get to know this man, for he is a force to be reckoned with in his swift movements in the pool, and in his sturdy attitude to trump life’s challenges.
When Ernie’s father discovered his mother’s affair, he left them. This prompted his mother to try to abort him.
Ernie survived the abortion, the first of the many battles he will win. He was born in Sinuda, Kitaotao in Bukidnon on May 5, 1991.
His mother died of cholera when he was just five months old, leaving him to the custody of his grandfather Pedro.
At the age of seven, Ernie learned about the failed abortion.
“Badtrip talaga ako nu’n,” he said, as he narrated his struggles due to his underdeveloped legs and left arm. “Gumagapang ako dati para makalakad.”
He also experienced being mocked and ridiculed for his physical impairment.
Ernie recalled that in one instance while he was a child, a construction worker behind him commented: “Wag mo akong luhuran.”
He was hurt, so he turned to the man and replied, “Bakit hindi ka lumuhod tapos suntukan tayo?”
Soon after, a rich businessman convinced his grandfather to send him to a training center dedicated to the handicapped youth. He found himself en route to Our Lady of Victory Training Center at Babak, Samal Island in Davao del Norte. It is run by the Maryknoll sisters of St. Dominic.
At the foundation’s beach resort, he met swimming coach Jude Corpuz who taught him the skill that would change the tides of his life.
“Lagi niya akong nakikitang nakatingin sa dagat kahit high tide o low tide. Kaysa masayang daw ang oras ko, tinuruan niya akong lumangoy,” Ernie said.
The Forest Hills resort pool became the initial training camp of young Ernie.
Coach Jude made him part of the swimming team composed of other persons with disabilities.
His first swimming competition was the 2008 Philippine Olympic Festival held in Cagayan de Oro. Young Ernie was closer to success. Well, not quite.
He was almost disqualified because he forgot his swimming trunks. Much to his relief, competition officials allowed him to compete wearing bulky cargo pants.
Ernie finished second to a PWD national team member.
The first placer, Arnel Aba, took notice of his potential and asked him to join the Philippine squad.
The odds were in favor of Ernie. Para swimming coach Tony Ong was then in Davao and the Philippine Sports Commission was looking for para swimmers.
As they say, the rest is history.
Para swimming star
Far from his usual quiet and gentle manner, Ernie is “a totally different person” in swimming, according to Coach Tony. In the words of his trainer: a “monster in the pool.”
Because of his dexterity and hard work in training, he serves as an inspiration for his fellow para swimmers to do better in their drills. The six-man para swimming team is composed of Ernie, Arnel, Gary Bejino, Roland Subido, Edwin Villanueva, and Adrian Azul.
“Mabilis talaga lumangoy si Ernie kaya nacha-challenge kami sa kanya,” Arnel said.
Under the supervision of Coach Tony and Coach Ral Rosario, the Davaoeño goes all out, hoping to take home the elusive gold medal in Paralympics for the Philippines. If he wins, he will receive a cash incentive from the government by virtue of Republic Act 10699.
After making waves at the Asian Para Games last year, he received over P4million in cash incentives, which he used to buy a 200-square meter house in Samal Island. The bemedalled para athlete also plans to buy a farm and a piggery, while helping his brother’s family.
“Hindi naman ako atleta habambuhay,” Ernie said. “Gusto ko rin makapagpundar.”
He plans to retire in 2024.
Heart of a champion
While he was in Kuala Lumpur for the 2017 ASEAN Para Games, Ernie received the news that his father had died.
Coach Tony had asked him to go home, but he chose to stay in Malaysia, and donned the national colors.
Despite the undesirable news, he defended his title in the 400-meter freestyle event after registering 4:57.49 on board. He also took home two gold medals, one silver, and two bronzes.
Water under the bridge
For Ernie, water is not just his battleground where he competes with others and shows his prowess, but an arena where he started to accept who he is.
“‘Pag nasa tubig ako, normal na tao ako,” he said. “Hindi ko naiisip na may kapansanan ako.”
His past isn’t troubling him now.
“Madalas akong nagtatanong kung bakit ako ganito. Nakita ko ‘yung sagot. Sa sports ako dinala ng kapansanan ko,” Ernie said.
“Di ko inaasahan na dito ako dadalhin ng Diyos,” added Ernie, grateful for the doors that opened for him because of para swimming.
Now that the spotlight is on him, the top para swimmer admitted he is already used to media interviews. “Dati mahiyain ‘yan si Ernie,” his friend and teammate Arnel said, adding that the champ is now more sociable and confident.
But Ernie regrets that he can no longer share his success with his grandfather who took care of him. His grandfather died in 2007, before he became part of the national team.
Because of the support he receives from his friends and teammates, Ernie knows he’s on the right track. His 23-year-old girlfriend from Davao also inspires him to reach his dreams, although settling down is far from his mind now.
For the 2020 Paralympics, the Philippine team needs to boost its chances of beating the powerhouses in Southeast Asia (Thailand and Indonesia) and Asia (China and Korea). Ernie recognizes that there’s no time to be complacent, since we are also lagging behind the para swimmers of other countries, especially the United States and Great Britain.
Strong currents might pull him out of the race toward the Paralympic gold. But like any other battle he has won in life, he will not surrender. Come hell or high water.