Philippine Gymnasts Prep For SEA Games Pressure

When Carlos Yulo made history for the Philippines by winning bronze on floor at the 2018 World Championships in Doha—his country's first world medal in gymnastics—he raised the bar. When he made history for the Philippines by winning gold on floor at the 2019 World Championships in Stuttgart―his country's first world title in gymnastics―he raised the bar even higher. 

Until 2018, the Philippines hadn't seen much representation on the world stage in gymnastics of any discipline. For the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines, the Southeast Asian Games are their big competition. And this year, the Philippines is hosting.

Commonly known as the SEA Games, the Philippines has been successful at the competition in the past, including the most recent two games. At the 2017 SEA Games, Kaitlin DeGuzman, currently a freshman gymnast at the University of Kentucky, won three medals: gold on bars, bronze on beam, and silver on floor. At the 2015 SEA Games, the Philippines won team bronze in the women's competition, led by Ava Verdeflor, a junior at Penn State, and Lizzy LeDuc, a former Illinois gymnast. Verdeflor and LeDuc both qualified for finals in 2015 with the former qualifying on uneven bars and the latter qualifying on beam and floor.

Competing for the Philippines and NCAA teams isn't all DeGuzman, Verdeflor, and LeDuc have in common, though. They also all trained in the U.S., and now this year's Philippine women's team for the SEA Games has, too.

The 2019 Philippine SEA Games women's gymnastics team is Chloe Gatlabayan, Mariana Hermoso, Cristina Onofre, and Mya Wilson. Gatlabayan, Hermoso, and Wilson competed earlier this year at the Asian Championships, and the SEA Games team was selected after that competition. The team captain, Onofre, is a veteran who competed at the 2015 and 2017 Games, as well as the 2014 Pacific Rim Championships. 

Wilson is actually a level 10 gymnast from East Bay Sports Academy in Concord, California—her Filipino heritage comes from her mom's side—so she's familiar with training in the U.S. where there's a high standard when it comes to both training and equipment. But her three teammates are all natives of the Philippines who have not been fortunate enough to have had that same level and access throughout their gymnastics careers, which has made the past four months a valuable experience for them.

The team spent about the last four months training in the U.S. at Infinite Bounds in Texas and East Sports Bay Academy. But they were actually supposed to start sooner.

Last year, Gatlabayan's mother asked Tammy DeGuzman―the current head coach of the Philippine women's national team, a two-time SEA Games gold medalist for the Philippines, and the mother of the aforementioned Kaitlin―if Tammy could coach and train Chloe in order to raise the level of her gymnastics and increase her chances of making this year's SEA Games squad.

By the end of 2018, Chloe's plans to train in the U.S. under Tammy were finalized. At the same time, Tammy learned that Wilson was also hoping to earn a spot on the SEA Games team. So the plan was for the Philippine gymnasts to arrive and train together in the U.S. starting in January 2019.

But they got delayed and had to wait for the Gymnastics Association of the Philippines to approve their budget. Seven months later, the SEA Games team had been decided and the Philippine national team gymnasts arrived in Texas to train at Infinite Bounds, where Tammy coaches, in August.

During their time in the U.S., the Philippine team worked on their fundamentals, experienced different levels and kinds of conditioning and rehabilitation, and even participated in dance classes to help them show off and enhance the performance quality of their routines.

"They learned how to train consistently and with intensity, with the support of each other," Tammy said. "All in all, this was a very good experience for them. They saw what it was like to train somewhere else and how other gymnasts train."

Working with and being around many other gymnasts proved to be beneficial as well. 

"The team here at Infinite Bounds helped out by cheering them on through routines and they became a part of the team," Tammy said. "I think it was very important for the Philippine team to feel that support. They really bonded well with all the girls here at Infinite Bounds and it showed through the team camaraderie."

The timing of the gymnasts' trip actually worked out well as the Philippines has been renovating and building training facilities and venues for the SEA Games.

Being 7,000 miles away from home didn't stop them from supporting their Philippine national teammate at the World Championships in October, though. While Gatlabayan, Hermoso, Onofre, and Wilson were hard at work training in California, Yulo was in Stuttgart, working on his own gymnastics and winning a gold medal.

The reigning men's floor exercise world champion will also be participating in the 2019 SEA Games.

"Carlos Yulo has shown that world that Philippine gymnasts can be world champions," Tammy said.

Add that on top of being the host country and having the opportunity to defend three medals from 2017, and the pressure is on for the Philippines.

The 2019 Southeast Asian Games begin Nov. 30, and the artistic gymnastics competition begins Dec. 1. There is no team competition this year, so the Philippine gymnasts hope to make all-around and event finals. Gatlabayan, Onofre, and Wilson will compete all-around while Hermoso will compete only beam and floor.

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