Four intrepid athletes took to the water, then their bicycles and eventually ran their way to history as the Philippine triathlon team composed of Nikko Huelgas, John “Rambo” Chicano, Kim Mangrobang and Claire Adorna annihilated the competition and bagged 1-2 finishes in the 29th Southeast Asian Games triathlon event; stamping the Philippines as the region’s most dominant and sending a message to the rest of the world that they are world class at what they do.
While triathlon has rapidly caught on around the world, it is still in its infancy in the ASEAN region.
The Philippines was the first host nation to introduce it as part of its medal sports in 2005 and while the country’s men’s entry Arland Macasieb only managed to capture the bronze medal against competition from Singapore (Cheng Jing Hean) and Malaysia (Loh Yeong Shang), its female athlete Alessandra Araullo copped the silver medal in the inaugural salvo.
In Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand the follow staging, Macasieb and Araullo repeated their finishes and it was just a matter of time before the Philippines garnered the title.
But because of its lack of popularity at the time, triathlon was not included in the Laos staging. It also wasn’t included in the next two editions of the biennial meet and by the time Singapore re-introduced it in 2015 (as they are one of the country’s that have been involved in the sport since its arrival in Southeast Asia), Macasieb and Araullo had already retired and now a new breed of multisport practitioners had to take centerstage.
Enter Huelgas and Adorna.
Huelgas, the nation’s poster boy not only for his good looks but also because of his eloquence, blistered the field and the shoe was literally on the other foot at the finish line when the Philippines won the gold and Singapore—through youngster Loo Chuan Rong—settled for the bronze.
Adorna left the field behind right after the swim as the UP Maroon who had just begun in triathlon the year prior just used her being a world class tanker to repel all opposition en route to the gold and a 1-2 finish as well with Mangrobang catching up on the bike and run legs to get the silver medal.
This year, Chicano was the lone rookie but has already had a decorated triathlon career even if he had started relatively late.
“Two years ago, gusto ko lang manalo para manalo,” the 26-year-old La Salle graduate shared in a recent press conference. “This time, I wanted to prove something; na may career pa ko. Second, I needed to get silver for Rambo because it would really stamp history for triathlon.”
Their strategy worked, although coming out of the water in the chase pack wasn’t their idea of how it was really supposed to go.
But Huelgas—who is traditionally stronger in the bike leg—successfully navigated to get back in the hunt with Chicano in tow.
Huelgas had taken the lead into the second transition, but Chicano fell behind and had to overcome a substantial distance against another Singaporean in Clement Chow.
But when Huelgas raised his arms in triumph in 1:59:30 (a “Sub 2” as it is referred to), he didn’t realize that Chicano had also outworked Chow and when the Zambales native headed home, Huelgas was almost in tears as they hugged for the first 1-2 finish on the men’s side ever.
“It was an emotional moment,” Huelgas recounts in a special interview by sports5.ph. “It’s still unbelievable to get another gold (medal) despite a lot of downfalls and struggles the past months trying to correct my technique in all aspects of the swim bike and run. Not to mention fixing the right diet that suited my body.
“Prayers and Hard work got me to where i am today. And ill forever believe in that method. Don’t ever give up the faith.”
But when the smoked cleared in the men’s race, all eyes were now on who would cross the finish line first in the distaff side.
Adorna was nursing a left knee injury and was the odds on favorite to claim the swim leg (her swim time of 2:11:14 was at par with world ranked competitors) but after the 90 kilometer pounding on the bike, would she still have the resolve to complete the race?
Mangrobang emerged from the final turn after being paced by Adorna in the swim and bike and not long after, the 24-year-old hobbled to the finish line and was still a good six minutes ahead of third placer Irene Chong.
“I was just happy to see Claire finish strong despite her struggling the whole 10km run with an obvious injury,” Huelgas said, reliving the moment he witnessed. “The girls were very inspiring to see work together on the swim and bike to get a very good lead on the race to secure a 1-2 finish.”
It cemented the Philippines as the top triathlon nation in the region—bar none. And it also served notice to the rest of the ASEAN when the country hosts the 2019 games.
“We had a standard to set,” Huelgas beamed. “A “Sub 2” (hour) to beat to prove to the world stage that SEA Games triathlon event can be at par with the World Standard of Triathlon.
“It will be an honor to represent the country on your home soil but I take it race by race. As I get older kasi, sabi nila, you get more injury-prone.”
For now Huelgas is two for two in the SEA Games and with the growing pool of talent in the Triathlon Association of the Philippines (TrAP), it won’t be long before someone not named “Huelgas” will set another “Sub 2”, perhaps even as early as in 2019.
For the ladies, Mangrobang and Adorna have swapped places, but with the emergence of new rising star Kim Kilgroe and the Borlain sisters, triathlon is slowly becoming a staple in the Philippine gold medal haul. Other countries may catch up sooner or later, but for now Huelgas is the king, Mangrobang is the queen and all of us are their “loyal” subjects.
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