Youth athletes make strides
Joaquin Henson (The Philippine Star) - February 11, 2020 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines — Gymnast Justine de Leon and squash player Christopher Buraga are among the country’s outstanding youth athletes today with the potential to become future gold medalists in the Southeast Asian Games and beyond. 

De Leon, 18, and Buraga, 13, competed in the recent SEA Games where the Philippines took overall honors. De Leon participated in three events and made it to the top eight in vault but because of the rule that a country may qualify only two finalists in an artistic gymnastics platform, stepped aside for teammates Caloy Yulo and Reyland Capellan. Yulo eventually took the silver and Capellan finished fifth.

Buraga was on the men’s team that took the silver in squash with Robert Garcia, MacMac Begornia and David Pelino. He saw action against Thailand, defeating Potirok Praangkorn, 11-5, 11-8, 11-3 as the Philippines won the tie, 3-0. It was Buraga’s only action in the SEA Games and he was one of two players among 20 in the men’s team event to go unbeaten. The other was Malaysia’s Ryan Pasqual who scored 66 points and gave up 18 in a 2-0 record. Buraga had 33 points for and 16 against.

Philippine Squash Academy (PSA) president Bob Bachmann said even at 13, Buraga is showing signs of someday becoming the face of Philippine squash. The Grade 8 student of Sergio Osmeña High School in Masambong, Quezon City, started playing the game in 2014 and three years later, joined his first tournament, winding up fourth in the junior division at the Palms Country Club Open.  Bachmann saw how hard Buraga worked on the court and brought him to Singapore in February last year to participate in the U15 division of the Junior Open. Buraga, only 12 at the time, bagged the gold medal in a startling performance. In June, Buraga was back in Singapore to play in the U15 division of the Technoform Lion City Open and once more, struck gold. That same month, he took the silver in the U13 division of the Asian Junior Open in Macau. In July, he pocketed the gold in the U13 division of the Borneo Junior Open.

Buraga, the youngest of four, said his dream is to surpass the achievements of the country’s No. 1 player Garcia. His focus is to bring honor to the country and his family. Buraga’s father is a security guard and mother, a housewife. Bachmann said PSA will continue to support Buraga by exposing him to more international competitions to upgrade his game. Buraga was introduced to the sport by squash coach Jaime Ortua whose nephew is the teenaged player’s grandfather. PSA secretary-general Edgar Balleber said Ortua continues to watch over Buraga and supervise his development.

De Leon, the fifth of six children, is a Grade 12 student at Taytay Senior High School and after graduation, will enrol at Adamson. Gymnastics Association of the Philippines (GAP) president Cynthia Carrion singled out De Leon as the most promising young gymnast in the fold today.

De Leon competed in floor, vault and parallel bars in the recent SEA Games but landed in the top eight only in vault. Before the SEA Games, he trained for 15 days in Tokyo with Yulo, Capellan and Jag Gywnn Timbang under coach Munehiro Kugimiya and the experience went a long way. At the moment, he trains 4 to 5 hours a day from Tuesday to Thursday in Pasig under coach Raffie Capitly and Friday to Sunday under coaches Aldrin Castaneda and Rafael Ablaza.

In 2017, De Leon took the gold in vault at the Singapore Junior Open and Asean School Games, also in Singapore. The next year, he bagged three golds and a silver at the Palarong Pambansa in Ilocos Sur and the junior division of the Philippine National Games. That same year, he took the silver in vault at the Asean School Games in Malaysia and a gold, silver and bronze at the Singapore Junior Open. Last year, he collected three golds, two silvers and a bronze at the Palarong Pambansa in Davao.

De Leon’s parents Joseph and Annabelle are estranged. His mother, who earns a living as a washerwoman, is the family’s sole breadwinner. De Leon said he’s not aware of his father’s whereabouts. De Leon’s dream is to follow in Yulo’s footsteps and like Buraga, bring honor to his country and family.

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