Asia's 'track queen' of the 1980s Lydia de Vega dies after 4-year cancer battle

Lydia de Vega became a track superstar in the Philippines at 18 years old. PHOTOS: THE NEW PAPER

MANILA - Track legend Lydia de Vega - once hailed as Asia's fastest woman and one of the Philippines' most decorated and beloved athletes - has died after a four-year battle with breast cancer. She was 57.

"She fought the very good fight and is now at peace," de Vega's daughter Stephanie de Koenigswarter said in a Twitter post late Wednesday (Aug 10).

In a statement, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr said de Vega "has run her last race".

"She has finished her contest. She has fought a good fight. Let us pray for her peace," he said.

De Vega won 15 gold medals throughout her career, including nine in the South-east Asian Games.

She became a track superstar in the Philippines when, at just 16 years old, she won golds in the 200m and 400m at the 1981 Manila SEA Games.

Tall, lithe and with movie star looks, she drew hordes of adoring fans.  But it was her consistent performance on the tracks that turned her into a folk hero.

She went on to dominate the 200m in the 1983 and 1987 SEA Games, and then rule the 100m in the 1987, 1991 and 1993 SEA Games.

Her time of 11.28 seconds in the 100m - clocked in 1987 - still stands as a Games record.

De Vega also won two Asian Games 100m golds - in New Delhi in 1982 and Seoul in 1986  - and competed as well at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics.

Her hard-won victories cemented her reputation as Asia's "track queen".

Retirement in Singapore

She retired in 1994, after winning her last two medals in the 1993 SEA Games in Singapore.

She then had forays in politics and government service.

In 2005, she opted for the low-key life of coaching children and people with disabilities in Singapore.

Her last public appearance was in the 2019 SEA Games in her country, where she, along with the Philippines' other sporting legends, carried the Philippine flag.

But it was her battle with cancer, disclosed by her family last month, that would ultimately be "the biggest race of her life", her daughter said.

Born on Dec 26, 1964, in Meycauayan city, an hour north of the capital Manila, de Vega was the daughter of a policeman whose rigid coaching fuelled her early successes.

Lydia de Vega (left) edging out Malaysian rival G. Shanti to win the 200m gold at the 1993 SEA Games in Singapore. ST PHOTO: ALBERT SIM

Rivalry with PT Usha

It was her legendary rivalry with India's Pilavullakandi Thekkeparambil Usha - P.T. Usha - that made De Vega a household name among Asia's sports fans.

The two first went toe-to-toe in the 100m in the 1982 Asian Games, when de Vega took control mid-way into the race to win the event.

But by 1985, Usha was at the top of her game, copping five gold medals in the Asian Championships in Indonesia. de Vega managed just one bronze medal.

Then, in the 1986 Seoul Asian Games, while Usha - known as the "Payyoli Express", a reference to her village in Kerala - dominated the 400m and 400m hurdles, de Vega reasserted her dominance in her favourite event: the 100m.

Usha would not be denied in the 200m, edging de Vega by just 0.03sec, to win the gold.

The two squared off again in the 1987 Asian Championships. While Usha remained uncontested in the 400m events, de Vega again proved her superiority over Usha in the 100m and 200m.

De Vega was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. She had since gone through several medical procedures, including brain surgery last month.

"We lost one of our own, one of our best, but her spirit will live on in our hearts," said Philippine athletics chief Terry Capistrano.

Former president Gloria Arroyo said: “She put Philippines sports on the world map.”

In the 1991 SEA Games in Manila, when some thought she was already past her prime, de Vega started slow in the 100m race but exploded in the 60m mark to outrun Malaysia’s G. Shanti, who had beaten her in a previous meet, and fellow Filipino Elma Muros.

Later, she said: “I had no doubt that I would win it… A lot of people had underestimated me. Now, they know who I am and what I can do.”

But in truth, there was never any doubt about who Lydia de Vega was and what she meant to her nation.

She was 'a pillar for me'

Singaporean athletics coach Jacter Singh, 61, paid an emotional tribute to his partner of almost 20 years.

"She was a very down-to-earth person, and would always prefer to lie low instead of taking any of the limelight or credit for anything," he told The Straits Times sports desk.

"The whole time we were together, I never heard her speak anything ill about anyone.

"But she would always be willing to go above and beyond to help. She loved to use the phrase 'giving is caring'. She was a very caring person, and a pillar for me."

Lydia de Vega with former national runner Jacter Singh in 2017. The pair were partners since 2003. PHOTO: COURTESY OF JACTER SINGH

The pair first met at the 1979 Asean Schools Track and Field Championships and became a couple later. Although they went on to marry other people, both their respective marriages broke down and they rekindled their relationship in 2003. 

Over the past 19 years, they would shuttle back and forth between the Philippines, where her family were based, and Singapore, where she helped coach at his JS Athletics academy.

De Vega had left Singapore for the Philippines in late April and had planned to return. However, her condition deteriorated in early July and she was in intensive care for five weeks. Jacter travelled twice to see her during this time, in early July and then two weeks ago for eight days; that was his last time seeing her.

He recalled: "I would talk to her and sometimes she would move her hands, and on two occasions, she opened her eyes.

"It was heartbreaking to see her on the hospital bed with so many tubes around her."

Jacter will travel to the Philippines on Friday morning, with De Vega's burial scheduled for Tuesday.

  • Additional reporting by Sazali Abdul Aziz

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.