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All eyes on Toni

With taekwondo bet Tshomlee Go’s surprise exit in yesterday’s preliminaries, the burden now shifts to welterweight Toni Rivero to salvage the country’s hopes for a medal at the Beijing Olympics.

Rivero, 20, battles Croatian nemesis Sandra Saric to open her campaign in the round-of-16 at the Science and Technology University gym in Beijing tomorrow morning. It will take four straight wins to bag the gold and three for the silver.

Philippine Taekwondo Association (PTA) president Robert Aventajado, in a phone call from Beijing, said his advice to Rivero is to just focus on her fight, nothing else.

“Forget about Tshom’s loss,” said Aventajado. “Toni shouldn’t be affected by it. She should come out and fight her fight.”

National men’s coach Roberto (Kitoy) Cruz, who stayed behind in Manila, described Rivero as “a pressure fighter” with the experience to carry her through.

“Toni’s young but she’s a veteran,” said Cruz who represented the country at the 2000 Sydney Games. “She started taekwondo at an early age so she has lots of experience. She should give it her all and not hold back. This is the moment she prepared so hard for. She has to be aggressive. She can’t play a waiting game. She has to attack.”

Cruz said if Rivero survives Saric, she will likely go up next against South Korea’s two-time world champion Hwang Kyung Seon who’s expected to easily dispose of the United Arab Emirates’ Sheika Maitha Almaktoum in her first assignment.

Hwang beat Rivero, 6-2, in the repechage for the bronze medal at the Athens Olympics four years ago.

Aventajado said Rivero has become a more mature fighter since the setback. “Toni was only 16 in Athens,” said the PTA head. “Besides, she was coming off a loss in the semifinals and had to fight Hwang right away with little rest. Hwang was a lot fresher.”

But Cruz cautioned Rivero not to look beyond Saric.

“It’s one fight at a time,” he said. “Don’t think about Hwang yet. The priority is to beat Saric.”

At the world qualifying tournament in Manchester last year, Rivero beat Ivona Brnic of Bosnia-Herzogovina and Olga Cherkun of Ukraine before losing a sudden death kick-off to Saric.

Rivero labored from a one-point handicap in the first two rounds before equalizing, 1-1, at the end of regulation. In overtime, Saric scored the first point to clinch a ticket to Beijing.

National women’s coach Rocky Samson protested Saric’s victory, insisting the point she got in sudden death was for a right kick to the arm. “It shouldn’t have counted,” he said. “After Saric kicked, Toni countered on the open side – it would’ve won the match for her if only the judges saw and scored it.”

Tomorrow, Rivero has a chance to avenge the defeat. Flying in from Manila to witness her bid for glory were her parents Manuel and Marilou, two brothers and grandmother.

The other pairings in Rivero’s -67 kilogram bracket are Hwang vs Almaktoum, Mouna Benabderrasoul of Morocco vs Yoriko Okamoto of Japan and Liya Nurkina of Kazakhstan vs Gwladys Patience Epangue of France.

In the event Rivero loses to a finalist, she will automatically be relegated with five others to the repechage pool where the last two survivors are awarded a bronze each.

As for Go’s bout against Australia’s Ryan Carneli yesterday, Cruz said it was evenly matched and could’ve gone either way.

“There were clear points for both,” said Cruz who watched the bout on TV. “In a fight, there are four scoring judges and a referee. Three of the four must press a button corresponding to a fighter within a second to score a point. The angle the judges see is different from what the TV shows. Tshom fought a good fight. It is frustrating to lose like that.”

Cruz said when Carneli opened a 2-0 lead in the second round, Go should’ve pressed the attack. A one-point deduction on Carneli settled the outcome.

“When you go down by two, you expect your opponent to just coast so Tshom really had to initiate and bait to create an opening,” continued Cruz. “

Aventajado said he couldn’t understand why Go’s kicks didn’t translate into points. The officials for the fight were Leon Preston of the US, Christian Huber of Austria, Yu Myung Ok of Canada, Abdessattar Barhoumi of Tunisia and Youssef Benali of Morocco.

“I’m not blind,” he said. “Tshom carried the fight. The other guy kept on backtracking which is why he was deducted a point in the third round. It’s hard to accept the loss. Tshom fought well. He was very composed, he never panicked. Losing was really a shock. You wouldn’t feel too bad if the Australian dominated or Tshom did nothing to deserve to win. But it was Tshom who dominated, not the Australian. “

Aventajado said PTA executive vice president and grandmaster Sung Chon Hong was disappointed. “What can you do except to accept the defeat even if it’s hard to,” sighed Aventajado.

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