Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Rio Olympian Mary Joy Tabal, a 28-year-old runner from Cebu, won the country’s first gold medal when she dominated the women’s marathon Saturday in the 29th Southeast Asian Games in Putrajaya, 36 kilometers south of this capital city.
Almost left out of the team following a spat with the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (PATAFA), Tabal crossed the finish unchallenged in 2 hours, 48 minutes and 26 seconds, some seven minutes ahead of the rest of the field.
The victory moved to tears many of those who watched Tabal grab the Philippine flag, hoist it and wrap it on her body.
“Nagpapasalamat ako sa lahat ng naniniwala sa akin,” said a joyful Tabal who was met and hugged by PATAFA president Popoy Juico at the finish line.
Following an appeal by Tabal, Juico decided at the last minute to include Tabal in the SEAG-bound team.
In Manila, Malacañang congratulated the lady marathoner for snaring the country’s first gold in the SEAG.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella congratulated the Rio Olympian in a statement and wished the rest of the Philippine team the best of luck.
“We congratulate Mary Joy Tabal for giving the Philippines its first gold medal with her performance in the women’s marathon at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,” Abella’s statement read.
“Congratulations to our athletes and good luck to the rest of the Philippine team. The whole nation is solidly behind you. Mabuhay po kayo!” he added.
Among those who greeted Tabal in Kuala Lumpur was basketball great Ramon Fernandez, now a sports commissioner, who cried unabashedly as he embraced the four-foot-11 runner.
Tabal entered the race supremely confident of victory following a three-month training in Italy under Italian coach Giuseppe Giambrone, Japanese mentor Akio Usami and local counterpart John Philip Duenas.
She made her move after the six-kilometer first loop and widened her lead as the race wore on.
“Nang palapit na, nararamdaman kong bumibigat ang katawan ko dahil sa sobrang excitement,” said Tabal who thanked her supporters.
Interviewed by media, Tabal said she hopes that her victory will inspire Filipino athletes to excel in the Games.
“Ipakita natin na kaya natin, hindi lang sa SEA Games, pati sa mundo, na kaya natin mag-excel,” she said.
Hoang Thi Thanh finished in 2:55.43 to settle for the silver while 2015 winner Natthaya T. of Thailand took the bronze in 2:58.17.
Tabal’s victory improved the Philippines’ haul to 1 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronzes, going into Day 1 of full-blown action on Sunday.
In the men’s race, Guillaume Soh of Singapore captured the gold in 2:29:27, edging Agus Prayogo of Indonesia and Muhaizar of Malaysia.
Jeson Agravante suffered cramps and pulled out of the race, one of three runners who did not finish.
The celebration over Tabal’s win was tempered by news that pole vaulter EJ Obiena, one of the country’s brightest hopes, injured his knee in training back home.
Obiena suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that will sideline him the rest of the season.
That left the country without an entry in men’s pole vault.
Late Friday, more Filipino athletes poured into the Malaysian capital, including double gold medallist Eric Cray and the men’s and women’s basketball teams arrived.
Also set to arrive Saturday were the men’s and women’s volleyball teams, fencers, swimmers and tennis players.