TWO months ago, Mary Joy Tabal fought for a spot in the Philippine Team roster for the 29th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
On Saturday, the Cebuana marathoner gave the Filipino hopefuls something to celebrate as she won the country's first gold medal, hours before the biennial meet's formal opening ceremony in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Tabal won the women's marathon with a time of two hours, 48 minutes and 26 seconds.
The runner, who stands 4'11”, stood up on the podium with the Philippine flag wrapped around her he body.
It was a sweet victory for the 2015 SEA Games silver medalist Tabal.
Not only did she dominate yesterday's race, she also beat her former tormentor, the 2015 gold medalist Natthaya Thanaronnawat of Thailand.
Vietnam's Hoang Thi Thanh clocked 2:55:43 to take silver medal, while Thanaronnawat dropped two places down with a bronze medal with a time of 2:58:17.
“I don't want to let our country down. On my mind I want to give the Filipinos what they're expecting from me. I had a good training and I just needed confidence to finish the race strong,” said the emotional Tabal.
The 28-year-old native of Barangay Guba, Cebu City trained for three months in Tuscany, Italy. She also underwent high-altitude training in St. Moritz, Switzerland.
“My training was very hard and I know coming in this race that I'm very ready. During my training, I had experience losing my breath, upset stomach and cramps. I was praying that it won't happen to me on race day, and I'm fortunate to have a very good condition,” she said.
Tabal of Motor Ace Kawasaki Racing Team was pacing the pack from the get-go and finally broke away at the halfway-mark of the 42-kilometer course.
“I had the solo lead in the third lap. I was just praying that time to the Lord hoping that I was doing the right pace,” said Tabal, who broke the country's gold medal drought in the marathon event.
The last time the country won a gold medal in the event was during the 2009 Laos SEA Games, where Eduardo Buenavista and Jho-An Banayag ruled the men's and women's divisions.
Tabal's road to the SEA Games was no walk in the park as she had to overcome road bumps along the way.
One was the much-publicized issue with the Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association (Patafa), the country's governing body for athletics.
Patafa dropped Tabal from the roster. Last June, it looked like Tabal wasn't going to this year's SEA Games.
Tabal, though, had many supporters, including Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) Commissioner Ramon Fernandez.
She was reinstated on June 15– the deadline for the submission of the athletes' name.
“I did not doubt Joy (Tabal) for a single time during the race because I'm confident of her training. I would like to give credit to Joy (Tabal) for the hard work, Jonel Borromeo for the great support he has given to Joy and Philip Dueñas (the long-time coach of Tabal) for training her. These three people are behind this great success of our country" said basketball legend Fernandez.
Jonel Borromeo, president of Motor Ace Philippines, who bankrolled Tabal's training abroad, said that he's very happy with Tabal's achievement.
“Very happy with the gold (medal). She has been training hard in Italy to get a gold and she did it,” he said.
Chipi Borromeo, the finance director of Motor Ace Philippines, said that while the company's support will continue, he wants to thank Patafa as well.
"We would like to thank Patafa for their support of Joy (Tabal). Without them, Joy wouldn't be able to compete," said Chipi.
He said that Tabal will stay in the Philippines but they will send her abroad for more training.
"We are working on another training scheduled for Italy in 2018 in preparation for the Asian Games," he added.
“I am very thankful to all people who have supported me. Every step I did, I was thinking of the people behind me. Their support helped me push to stay strong until the finish line,” Tabal said.
As of Saturday, the Philippine Team racked up one gold medal, a silver and two bronzes. The sporting meet will run until August 30.