Not even the record-setting jump of Olympian and world No. 3 EJ Obiena—who bagged his third consecutive Southeast Asian Games pole vault gold medal—could have softened the blow. Neither could the record-smashing performances of Elreen Ando and Vanessa Sarno that earned them gold medals in their respective weightlifting events.
Even gymnastics star Carlos Yulo’s medal haul of two golds and two silvers or the 58th gold medal that kickboxer Claudine Veloso won for the Philippines could not have eased the nation’s sorrow had Gilas Pilipinas men’s basketball team failed to defeat a souped-up Cambodian quintet in the 5×5 basketball final on May 16.
Even the fact that Gilas Pilipinas had to face a team reinforced by five naturalized players from the United States and two Cambodian American players was not sufficient reason to soothe a basketball-mad nation like the Philippines.
But after trouncing Cambodia, 80-69, in the gold medal match at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games in Phnom Penh, Gilas Pilipinas head coach Chot Reyes had every right to heave a sigh of relief. In an interview with Olympics.com, he recalled how the Philippine team looked helpless against the host team during the May 11 group stage match and lost, 79-68: “There were those who doubted this team after that first defeat to Cambodia. But I can tell you, in the dugout, what I told the players was that it was a defeat that was required. We needed that defeat to bring that fire.”
Reyes, who came under intense scrutiny after the loss to Cambodia, said this match was about redemption after last year’s SEA Games in Hanoi, when the national team suffered the unthinkable: Indonesia ending the Philippines’ 31-year regional dominance with a shock gold-medal win.
PH in 5th place
Gilas Pilipinas’ victory is the Philippines’ 56th in Phnom Penh. As the 32nd SEA Games came to a close on May 17, the Philippines placed fifth in the tally with 58 golds, 86 silvers, and 116 bronzes, for a total of 260 medals.
The host country usually ends up among the top performers, but first-time SEA Games host Cambodia only finished fourth in the ranking with 81 golds, 74 silvers, and 127 bronzes for a total of 282 medals. Still, it is a big achievement for Cambodia, which won only 9 golds, 13 silvers and 41 bronzes for a total of 63 medals in Hanoi. In fact, in all its 21 previous appearances at the SEA Games, Cambodia won only 78 golds.
For the second consecutive SEA Games, Vietnam maintained its dominance, this time with 136 golds, 105 silvers, and 114 bronzes for a total of 355 medals.
The Philippines finished fourth in Hanoi, but in this edition of the regional meet, it wrapped up its campaign with six more gold medals—its best overseas performance since the 14th (1987) SEA Games in Jakarta, when it came home with 59 golds.
The Philippine contingent rallied during the final four days of the meet (May 13-16), bagging 27 golds in taekwondo, boxing, weightlifting, arnis, kickboxing, and wrestling.
Wrestlers Jason Balabal (men’s Greco Roman 87 kg), Maria Cristina Vergara (women’s freestyle 65 kg), Alvin Lobreguito (men’s freestyle 57 kg), and Ronil Tubog (men’s freestyle 61 kg) each won gold in their respective categories.
Pro boxer turned kickboxer Gretel de Paz got hers from winning the women’s low kick 56 kg event. De Paz’s gold medal was the second for Team Philippines in kickboxing after Jean Claude Saclag triumphed in the men’s low kick 63.5-kg division on May 15. The last gold medal for the team and for the Philippines (58th) came courtesy of Veloso in kickboxing’s female 52-kg event.
On the last day of the SEA Games, Trixie Mary Lofranco ruled the women’s individual anyo non-traditional open weapon in arnis, capping the successful campaign of fellow arnisadors Dexler Bolambao, Maria Ella Alcoseba, Charlotte Ann Tolentino and Jedah Mae Soriano. Together they collected five of the 12 golds in the event regarded as the Philippines’ national sport and martial art.
In boxing, Tokyo Olympians Carlo Paalam (men’s 54 kg) and Nesthy Petecio (women’s 57 kg) topped their respective events to both win their second SEA Games gold medals. Meanwhile, Ian Clark Bautista (men’s 57 kg), who last won the gold during the Singapore (2015) SEA Games, got his second while Paul Bascon (men’s 60 kg) finally got his very first gold.
More gold medals
Philippine taekwondo amassed six gold medals: Patrick Perez won one in the men’s individual recognized poomsae while the trio of Jocel Ninobla, Nicole Labayne, and Aidaine Laxa grabbed another in the women’s team event. Four more came from individual performances of Tokyo Olympian Kurt Barbosa (men’s 54 kg) Arven Alcantara (men’s 68 kg), Samuel Morrison (men’s 87 kg), and Rio Olympian Kirstie Elaine Alora (women’s 73 kg) on May 13.
Of course, Team Philippines’ performance in Phnom Penh would have been perfect had Gilas Pilipinas women’s 5×5 succeeded in their golden three-peat bid. The quintet eventually settled for the silver when they succumbed to a 21-point blowout (89-68) against Indonesia. They slipped to a 3-1 record while Indonesia remained undefeated, 4-0, in the round-robin tournament where medal standings are determined by win-loss records.
Another heartbreak was the campaign of the Philippine women’s volleyball team that again had to settle for fourth place, falling to Indonesia in four sets, 20-25, 25-22, 22-25, 23-25, during their bronze-medal match on May 14. A bronze-medal finish would have sufficed for the Philippines because the Thai team, ranked 15th in the world, has dominated this event for 14 successive SEA Games—a run that dates back to the 18th (1995) SEA Games in Chiangmai when it beat the Philippines.
Perhaps, some important realizations would result from the Philippines’ losses in other events in the 32nd SEA Games, such as volleyball, so we can move mountains and add more to our gold-medal tally in the next meet in Thailand come December 2025.