HANOI—A campaign that started swimmingly as the clock struck midnight Saturday and collected more gold medals at daybreak suffered some stunning defeats as the day wore on.
EJ Obiena, however, leapt in to the rescue.
The Tokyo Olympian and reigning Asian record holder proved his mettle in the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games on Saturday, retaining his pole vault title and setting a new meet record at My Dinh National Stadium.
“The conditions were hard [and] too many [of my competitors] were having cramps,” said the 6-foot-2 Obiena, the world No. 5 in men’s pole vault. “But I didn’t get cramps, so that’s a good thing.”
Right on the first attempt, Obiena nailed the SEA Games gold medal—his second straight—with a 5.40-meter leap. After consulting his dad, Obiena went for the meet record and also clinched it in just one go. He registered 5.46m, bettering his own 2019 mark of 5.45.
“I’m relieved, to be honest, and happy as well,” said Obiena whose showcase of talent erased months of bad publicity over his spat with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association over liquidation issues.
Two gold medals in kickboxing hiked the country’s haul, even as triathlon retained its men’s and women’s titles to keep Team Philippines’ medal machine humming.
“We were expecting this in the first place, but we never relaxed despite the confidence we have. They still did their homework,” said national triathlete coach George Vilog.
In kickboxing, 32-year-old Gina Iniong-Araos, driven by the desire to shush bashers who belittled her capability to compete after she chose to raise a family amid a busy martial arts career, bagged the gold after crushing Jaiteang Warapron of Thailand to claim the women’s low-kick 60-kilogram gold medal.
“It has become a challenge for me, people who say that I should quit and just focus on taking care of my child,” said Araos in Filipino.
Jean Claude Saclag turned back another Thai, Chaleamlap Santidongsakum in the men’s 63-kg low kick, for the other kickboxing gold.
At daybreak, Filipinos Fernando Casares and Kim Mangrobang stamped their class in the men’s and women’s triathlon, which the country has been dominating the past two editions.
Groomed for Paris
The Filipino-Spanish Casares, already being groomed for the Paris Olympics, finished the course (1.5-kilometer swim, 40-km bike and 10-km run) in one hour, 56 minutes and 57 seconds, almost four minutes ahead of fellow Filipino Andrew Kim Remolino, who took the silver.
Mangrobang captured her third straight crown after clocking 2:13:31, while teammate Raven Faith Alcoseba placed third.
“This is planned. We want to continue our domination in triathlon,” said Triathlon Association of the Philippines chief Tom Carrasco.
The 30-year-old Mangrobang will once again take the streets on Sunday as the country hopes for another sweep in duathlon (10km run, 40km bike, 10km run).
Among the day’s stunning defeats came from wushu princess Agatha Wong, whose flawless routine was reduced to second place by a more daring Indonesian rival.
But the three-time champion took the loss with grace and charm.
“I’m still very grateful,” said the 23-year-old Wong. “With only two months of training [because of the pandemic], I was not expecting anything at all. I’m grateful also because they chose me for the national team.”
Wong delivered an error-free routine that generated 9.69 points.
Unfortunately, Indonesian Alisya Mellynar opted for a more daring performance at Cau Giay Gymnasium and won the gold by two-hundredths of a point (9.71).
“I just tried to not commit mistakes; as long as I don’t make mistakes in my routine, I’m okay with it,” Wong said. She will take the stage once again on Sunday in the women’s taijijian (with weapons) which she ruled during the 2019 edition in the Philippines.
Wong wasn’t the only lost gold on Saturday.
Gilas Pilipinas dropped out of title contention after losing to Thailand, 21-17.
The No. 2-seeded men fell to the No. 3 Thais, who used their speed and long-distance shooting to maximum effect in the physical contest at Thanh Tri Gymnasium.
Finding no remedy against a bigger enemy that shot the basketball with deadly accuracy, the Philippines’ women’s 3×3 squad also bowed to Thailand, 21-14, as the country lost the two crowns it won in 2019.
The men’s and women’s teams were trying to salvage bronze at press time.
As of 6 p.m. Saturday, the country lagged at fourth place with seven golds, 12 silvers and 15 bronzes. Vietnam is well on its way to supremacy expected of the host country with a 31-18-26 tally. Indonesia (13-15-3), Malaysia (13-5-15) are currently at second and third. Thailand had 6-12-22 at fifth.
Rowing also settled for bronzes at Haipong Training Center, courtesy of Olympian Cris Nievarez in lightweight single scull, and Edgar Ilas and Zuriel Sumintac in men’s lightweight pair.
The Philippine men’s volleyball team, meanwhile, was stunned by a vastly-improved Cambodia side, 25-21, 24-26, 30-28, 29-27 at Quang Ninh Gymnasium.
The squad, led by Japan league imports Bryan Bagunas and Marck Espejo, won a surprise silver when it upset Thailand in the semifinals. Now, the team will need to beat the Thais on Sunday just to make it to the semifinals.
The women’s volleyball team, on the other hand, absorbed a lopsided 25-15, 25-13, 25-14 shellacking at the hands of defending champion Thailand.
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