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2019 Recap Part 1: When PH 'won as one'

The Philippines' hosting of the 30th SEA Games had a lot of memorable moments aside from its overall championship. Jade Moya (file photo)
By Ivan Saldajeno

IT is no surprise that the Philippines' hosting of the Southeast Asian Games, regardless of which country actually the overall title, would be the top sports story of the year. What made it even sweeter is that the Philippine team went on to win the overall championship.

PSC commissioner Mon Fernandez celebrated the feat in style by posting a Duterte fist with the hashtag #WeWonAsOne on Dec. 11, just before the closing ceremonies.
That post alone summed up everything that took place for that two-and-a-half-week period: it was a victory for the Filipinos in a lot of aspects.

Although the sports meet did not really go off to a good start, that is, the early concerns regarding the billeting, the food being served at the hotel, the designated press rooms for some games, and even how the allocated budget to put up the official SEA Games cauldron was used, the host nation pulled off one great job in hosting the games.

Then came the first day where medals were on the line. The Philippine team quickly soared up to the top of the medal tally with 22 gold medals, and many thought the host was on track of eclipsing the all time gold record of 183 set by Thailand in 2007.

Eventually, the Philippines finished with 149 golds. Although it came up short of Thailand's record, it was enough to clinch the overall champion, better the gold haul of Malaysia in 2017 (145), and set a new national record in SEA Games golds, eclipsing the 113 it won in the last time it hosting the games in 2005.

The 2019 SEA Games also saw arguably the most memorable act of sportsmanship a Filipino athlete has ever done when Roger Casugay paused his bid to take a gold in surfing, went back to the big waves of the West Philippine Sea, and saved his Indonesian opponent from drowning.

We will get back to that deed by Casugay in a while, but here are the other top stories from Filipino athletes (and fans from two other countries) during the SEA Games.

The last stand?
Efren "Bata"Reyes of the Philippines won on the Carom Billiard race to 100 score 100 -37 during the elimination round against Thailand Punyawee Thongchai on 30th SEA Games held at Manila Hotel. SEA Games pool photo
Despite being a world champion and a Hall of Fame member in billiards, there has been one championship that has been elusive to Efren "Bata" Reyes, a gold in either the SEA Games or the Asian Games.

At age 65, Reyes made probably one last crack for the gold in the 2019 SEA Games at home. Fans flocked the Manila Hotel Tent to see Reyes make his push to finally capture that elusive gold.

Reyes made all the way to the semifinals, but he fell in the said round to Vietnam's Dinh Nai Ngo, a carom circuit world champion, and once again settled for the bronze.

If ever this was Reyes' last hurrah, having the Filipinos see the legend in action live in flesh would be the best way to do it.

The time has come for Gilas Women
The Philippines dominated both the 5x5 basketball tournaments of the SEA Games. Jade Moya (file photo)
Like Reyes, a SEA Games gold has been elusive for the Philippine women's basketball team. In fact, prior to the start of the games, Coach Pat Aquino had modest expectations about his team's chances.

"I know for a fact [that] we're the underdogs. Malaysia is the defending champion, Thailand has been there for the championship, and Indonesia, as I recall, has been improving a lot," Aquino said in a press conference on Nov. 19 organized by Gilas Women's main sponsor, Ever Bilena.

Fast forward to the end of the 5x5 tournament on Dec. 10. Gilas Women completed a 3-0 sweep of the said event by romping Thailand. They essentially dethroned Malaysia prior to that.

Coupled by the 3x3 gold they got the previous week, Gilas Women struck not just one but two golds in their first ever SEA Games championships.

"The gold is with us now, and I'm just so happy, not happy for the girls only but for the whole country and for the women's side of everything," Aquino said after clinching the gold.

With these, coupled by the fact that Gilas Women are in Division 1 of the FIBA Asia Women's Cup, there is nowhere to go for them but up.

A jampacked Rizal Memorial Stadium (and Biñan Football Stadium too)
The Vietnamese fans were in full force during the men's football final of the SEA Games. Jan Dayrit (file photo)
The men's football event has been the "main event" of the SEA Games every time. Considering that Southeast Asia is a football crazy region, all eyes are on the said tournament.

Especially that Philippine football is in a renaissance (more on that in the upcoming decade-ender), the Rizal Memorial Stadium and even the Biñan Football Stadium have seen full-sized crowd every time the U22 Azkals and the Malditas were in action.

Both the Philippine national teams failed to make the finals of the men's and women's tournaments, but the attendance count at RMS during the men's final between Vietnam and Indonesia showed that the football event remains as the most anticipated part of the games.

The 8,000-seater pitch was also sold out when Vietnam and Indonesia faced off for the men's gold. Vietnam would capture the gold, but the crowd outcome is a sign that football will remain in a Southeast Asian's heart.

A breakthrough semis stint
The Malditas take one last bow after their bronze medal match against Myanmar. Jan Dayrit (file photo)
Speaking of the Malditas, this year has been a fruitful one for the Philippine women's football team, and a semifinal stint in the SEA Games was the icing on the cake.

The Malditas scored a breakthrough draw against Myanmar before romping Malaysia to book a place in the Final 4.

Although the Malditas missed out on a medal after tough losses to eventual champ Vietnam in the semis and Myanmar in a rematch for the bronze, making the playoffs was in itself a breakthrough for Malditas even if the Philippines does not have a legit pro women's football league. More on the Malditas in the decade-ender soon.

The long wait is over
The Philippine men's volleyball team poses after receiving its silver medals in the SEA Games. Jade Moya (file photo)
The 2010's in general saw the renaissance of the Philippine volleyball scene mainly due to the UAAP, the rehashing of the former Shakey's V-League, which is now known as the PVL, and the founding of the PSL.

But with all the hype in the women's division, the men's division was quickly overlooked. Thanks to Spikers' Turf, however, the men's volleyball, at least in some ways, got some hype.

But even if men's volleyball is sneaking into the hype, the women's play remains as the more watched games.

That is why the Philippine men's volleyball team's memorable run in the SEA Games took the entire volleyball community by storm.

Parading arguably the strongest squad ever assembled led by Marck Espejo and Bryan Bagunas, the Philippine squad stunned no less than erstwhile champion Thailand in the semifinals to return to the final after more than 40 years.

Although the Philippines fell prey to Indonesia in the final, the silver it got shone like gold and should spark further developments to rebuild the country's identity to the international scene.

The golden save
Roger Casugay's life-saving moment was the top story of the SEA Games. PSC (file photo)
And of course, the biggest story of the SEA Games. Roger Casugay could have easily pulled away from his opponent in their surfing race due to his surfboard getting damaged by the waves.

But knowing that someone's life was in danger, Casugay forgot about the event, went back to the sea, and saved his Indonesian counterpart from possibly drowning.

Casugay's effort was heard all around the Philippines and Indonesia, and the latter's president thanked him for the act of sportsmanship.

The SEA Games also named him the Fair Play Athlete of the Year, and as a new decade beckons, more blessings will surely come for him.

Follow him on Twitter: @IvanSaldajeno