Three Pinoy Olympic bets and their medal hopes

Barely a month before the Olympic Games open in London, three of the Philippines’ brightest medal hopes are upbeat about their chances of putting up a good performance and, hopefully, bag that elusive medal.

Lightflyweight boxer Mark Anthony Barriga, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz and long jumper Marestella Torres are one in saying the road to Olympic glory will be tough in the face of superior competition, but all three said that they’re now close to the best shape of their lives as they seek to end the country’s 16-year medal drought.

The three are among the 11 athletes that Filipino delegation to quadrennial Games, and seven who were at the send-off party hosted by the Philippine Olympic Committee in Taguig. Although they’re considered long shots, with a little luck one of these three could see a podium finish.

Lone boxer
Boxing has produced the last four Olympic medals for the Philippines, so the spotlight usually falls on the country’s pugilists every time the Olympics rolls around. Barriga was the lone Filipino boxer to qualify for London, but he says he doesn’t feel any added pressure.
 
“To be honest, I don’t feel any pressure at all,” said the Davao native, who at 19 will be one of the youngest competitors in his division. “For me, whatever comes, you can’t avoid it. I don’t think about it because it will just destroy your focus. I’m happy when I train and I’m happy that I’m an Olympian.”

Barriga’s current AIBA ranking in his division is only 43rd, but he boosted his stock considerably by winning the gold medal in the competitive Sydney Jackson Memorial Cup in Uzbekistan last April. His victim in the gold medal match was Russia’s David Ayrapetyan, silver medalist in the 2011 World Championships and currently ranked third in the world.

“It was of great help because it was added exposure, and the boxer I beat in the finals was a silver medalist in the world championships,” Barriga said of his feat.

Jong Hun Shin of Korea is the top-ranked boxer in the lightflyweight division, followed by China’s Zou Shiming, the gold medalist in Beijing. But Barriga is not too concerned about the rankings at this point.

“I’m not keeping an eye on any particular boxer,” he revealed. “All of them are good. The qualifying tournament is over, so only the good ones are left. I don’t think about how good they are. I’ll just keep on fighting till the end.”

Female lifter has a shot
Diaz will be competing in her second straight Olympiad. As a wide-eyed 17-year-old wild card entry, she placed 11th out of 12 competitors in the 58kg competition in the Beijing Games with a total lift of 192 kilograms.

Now, after four years of training and improvement, the native of Zamboanga City has a world ranking of ninth overall in her division, and her personal best is now 219 kilograms, seven shy of the bronze medal output in Beijing. It’s still a fairly large gap, but Diaz isn’t discounting her ability to close that gap further in London.

“There’s a possibility, but it’s really hard to say until you’re actually there in the competition,” she said. “All I can say is I will do all I can to place.”

Last April, Diaz finished fourth in the Asian championships, lifting only 212, or eight off a podium finish. But she says she’s now 90% ready for London and should be in good position to break her record, which with a little luck can hopefully be good enough for a bronze.

A gold medal might be out of reach, she says, since the Beijing winner lifted a staggering 244. She will need to fend off stiff challenges from lifters from Thailand, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Taiwan, North Korea to win a bronze.

Long jump queen
Upon first glance, Torres might have an even slimmer chance than Barriga and Diaz to win a medal, since no Filipino track and field athlete has won an Olympic medal in 76 years, and no female track and field athlete has ever won anything.

But the 31-year-old, who was the Asian long jump champion in 2009, feels she is peaking at the right time and has high hopes of making it to the last 12, where, she says, anything can happen.

“The toughest part is the qualification,” she said. “You have to be on top of your game there, because once you reach the top 12, sometimes the performance of the competitors starts dropping. In the Olympics and world championships, if you get a 6.60-something (meters), you’re in the top 12. So hopefully I peak during the Olympics and get a 6.60+ so I can get into the last 12.

“I’ve been hitting 6.60 since May, so if I can improve on that and peak in time for London, that would be good.”

As a wildcard entry in Beijing, Torres only managed a best jump of 6.17 meters, putting her in 34th place out of 38 competitors. Flash forward to last November’s Southeast Asian Games, where she won her fourth gold medal with a personal best jump of 6.71 meters, giving her reason to hope for a milestone performance next month.

“In Beijing, I was just a wildcard, and my performance wasn’t too good. But this time, I qualified, and preparation has been good.”

Another 6.71 or better in London could put her in the mix of things. In last year’s world championships, the gold medal jump was 6.82, while the bronze was 6.76. If a break or two goes Torres’ way, then who knows what can happen?

The other Filipino athletes going London include 5,000m runner Rene Herrera, judoka Tomohiko Hoshina, swimmers Jasmine Alkhaldi and Jessie Lacuna, skeet shooter Brian Rosario, BMX rider Daniel Caluag, and archers Mark Javier and Rachel Cabral.

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