Asean Para Games: Filipino set to make waves at Para Games

Learning to swim changed the life of orphan who now leads Philippines' para-swimmers

Ernie Gawilan, 24, will compete in three individual and two relay events at the OCBC Aquatic Centre. Sports has offered him another purpose in life and he wants to inspire other people with disabilities.
Ernie Gawilan, 24, will compete in three individual and two relay events at the OCBC Aquatic Centre. Sports has offered him another purpose in life and he wants to inspire other people with disabilities.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Everything about Ernie Gawilan should be impossible. His existence, his journey, his destination are each an implausible story.

Yet, here he is. A boy marked by tragedy but untouched by bitterness, a man with ill-formed limbs but completely whole in water.

The 24-year-old was born with his legs and left arm not fully grown. But he has blossomed into one of the Philippines' most successful para-swimmers and will lead their charge at this week's Asean Para Games (APG) in Singapore.

Nothing has come easily for Gawilan, who grew up an orphan in one of his country's remotest regions.


He almost died when his mother tried to abort him to conceal an affair from her husband, who abandoned the family upon discovering the infidelity. Gawilan's mother died of cholera within months of childbirth, and he was raised by his grandfather, Pedro.

Growing up in a farm in the hilly region of the Marilog district of Davao City was therapeutic for Gawilan. He told The Straits Times: "There was a lot of space to play in. It was a simple but happy life. I've never met my father. It's sad but I have a new family now with my teammates. I've moved on."

At nine, his grandfather sent him 100km away to the Our Lady of Victory Training Centre in Samal Island, which helps disadvantaged and handicapped young people to learn vocational skills with the hope that they would eventually find a job.

But Gawilan discovered something more valuable - self-worth. He said: "One of the caregivers there taught me how to swim in 2004, but I was so scared of drowning that I refused to learn. It took a while before I agreed and it changed my life forever."

The island's surrounding waters became his escape and each time Gawilan - an avid fisherman with sunburnt skin and light brown hair - dived into the sea, he felt transformed. "In the water, I was no different from everyone else. I wasn't a PWD (person with disability), I was an ordinary person, an ordinary swimmer."

Not quite though. For one thing, with his lean, athletic build, he was fast. In his first local meet in 2008, he forgot to bring his swimming trunks and had to race in his cut-off cargo pants. He still won a medal.

His international debut at the 2009 APG in Kuala Lumpur was even more astounding. He participated in the 100m, 200m, 400m S8 freestyle events and broke the meet records in all three en route to gold.

His coach of seven years Tony Ong said: "Ernie was born to swim and is one of the most hard-working athletes I've ever worked with."

At last year's Asian Para Games in Incheon, Gawilan was his country's most bemedalled athlete with three bronze medals.

Earlier this year, he also came within a whisker of qualifying for next year's Paralympics, which would make him the first male Filipino swimmer to do so.

He clocked a personal best of 4min 53.66sec in the 400m free - also the 14th-fastest time this year - at the International Paralympic Committee Swimming World Championships in Glasgow in July. The Paralympic cut is 4min 49.29sec.

He hopes to beat that timing at the APG held from tomorrow to next Wednesday, and will compete in three individual and two relay events at the OCBC Aquatic Centre.

"It's where the best swimmers in the world will be and I want to be there with them," said Gawilan, who trains in the morning and evening six times weekly at the PhilSports Complex in Pasig City.

Sports has also offered him another purpose in life. He said: "I want to inspire fellow PWDs and show them that we all have problems but they can be solved."

Last year, he learnt to ride a modified motorcycle despite his physical limitations. He is also a self- taught guitarist.

Even in his worst sporting moments - the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou, where he suffered stage fright and did not win a medal - Gawilan, whose grandfather died in 2007, manages to find joy.

He may walk on his knees but refuses to be brought down to them. "I told myself to use it as motivation, to never accept failure and let it defeat me," he said.

That his favourite band are American rock group Firehouse seems appropriate. One of their hit singles goes: "I've been mistreated, I've been used before/ I get kicked in the face still I come back for more."

An apt ballad for someone who has spent his entire life swimming against the tide.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 02, 2015, with the headline 'A boy marked by tragedy makes waves'. Print Edition | Subscribe