The unintended Olympian

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - June 19, 2021 - 12:00am

The Philippines has, as of this writing, 11 athletes who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. After a year of training on grass in a public park in Florida, Kristina Knott hopes to join them very soon. This weekend, the national archery team hopes to add to that number by placing in the top three in either or both team events at the Archery World Cup in Paris. They are among the lucky ones. Many others have already fallen by the wayside, overcome by stronger opposition and / or long odds.

But there is someone who is even luckier. Twenty-two-year-old weightlifter Elreen Ando is the country’s 11th and latest Olympian. Ando was expecting to qualify for the Olympics, just not this one. She was too far off, too low in the rankings. The 2019 SEA Games silver medalist was perfectly content to build her strength, bide her time, climb the standings, and go to Paris in four years.

“At first, I didn’t want to believe it,” Ando says in the vernacular. “Now, it’s really sunk in. I’m doubling my training. Getting into the Olympics means a lot; not everyone has gotten in.”

Prior to the Asian Weightlifting Championships a few weeks ago, Ando was ranked 26th. Then she earned two silver medals and a bronze in the 64-kilogram category. At the same time, the International Weightlifting Federation expanded eligibility from just eight per category. This confluence of circumstances opened the door for Ando, one of only two Asians in a weight class dominated by Europeans and Americans. She joins her teammate, Olympic silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz, in Tokyo. When Hidilyn first called her with the good news, she thought it was a prank.

“Now I’m training even harder,” Ando says from the solitude of her training facility in Cebu. “It really makes a big difference having Ate Hidi as a teammate. Her experience and advice have really helped me.”

Ando is lucky in so many ways. She qualified unexpectedly, and thus has less pressure on her shoulders. She won’t be competing alone in her sport, unlike most of her countrymen like pole vaulter EJ Obiena or gymnast Carlos Yulo. And she has an elder teammate who is a calming, motivating influence. If she gets any luckier, she just might come home from Tokyo with a medal.

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