Tabal: From Olympian To athletes’ mentor

Mary Joy Tabal
Mary Joy Tabal

CEBUANA Mary Joy Tabal collapsed in her first 10K run and a photo of her was plastered in SunStar Cebu. A decade later, the paper would run a full spread as Tabal represented the country in the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics in 2016.

“Before the limelight, a marathon for me was a personal challenge. It started with my 10-km. run, where I collapsed at the finish line. It was an opportunity to push my limits and discover my passion for running long distances,” said Tabal, the first Filipino to qualify for the marathon in the Olympics.

Growing up in Guba, a mountain village of Cebu City, the young Tabal could never picture herself as an Olympian marathoner even if she diligently walked three kilometers a day, up and down hills, from her house to the school and back.

“Becoming the first Filipina to run the Olympic marathon was a surreal moment filled with pride and excitement. It was the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice,” said Tabal.

Tabal had an unusually late start in sports at the age of 12, in contrast to most other athletes who begin training and aiming for the Olympics at a relatively young age. It was in the intramurals at Guba Elementary School that she first picked up running.

“Initially, I didn’t dream of becoming a marathoner. In elementary, during my sixth grade (I was a sprinter and) my instructors saw my potential and we reached Palarong Pambansa,” said Tabal.

Tabal gained the endurance of a marathoner on the hilly road of Barangay Guba from her house to the school and back.

After taking a break in high school, she got back into running in college. It started as a way to get a scholarship and just to stay fit. Eventually it evolved into a passion as she discovered a talent for long-distance running through her long-time coach John Philip Dueñas.

She got so dominant in the local running scene that she won almost all races she joined. In the national scene, she dominated the Milo National Marathon and eventually made the national team, winning the silver medal in the Singapore Southeast Asian Games (Seag) in 2015.

Then a dream was hatched together with her main backer Jonel Borromeo of MotorAce—to bring Tabal to the Olympics.

That it was challenging is an understatement. Tabal not only had to fight for a spot in the Olympics, she had to fight for a spot in the Philippine team due to politics.

Her sponsor sent her to the best training camp abroad, and she eventually qualified after running the Ottawa Marathon in 2:43:29, a remarkable achievement since prior to that, her previous best in the Milo Marathon was 2:48:00.

But even after qualifying, it would take the help of then Philippine Sports Commission commissioner Mon Fernandez and chairman Butch Ramirez to get her reinstated to the national team, just in time for the Rio Olympics in August.

“At that moment, I felt a mix of emotions—gratitude for the opportunity, pride in representing my country, and determination to give my best performance on the world stage,” said Tabal.

In Rio, the heat was a challenge for Tabal, but her resolve and her penchant for beating doubters and challenges pushed her to move on.

Tabal thought of her family, coaches and supporters who had been instrumental in her journey, helping her cross the finish line at 3:02:27, a far cry from her personal best.

But her resolve to cross the finish line meant she wasn’t one of the 24 who failed to finish.

After the Olympics, Tabal would run for a few more years—becoming the first to win six straight titles in the Milo Marathon, including an emotional one at home just hours after her father died, winning the Seag gold in 2017 and the silver at home in 2019.

Now, sporting the name of Mary Joy Tabal-Jimenez, she wears a different shoe as a full-time mum of her one-year-old daughter and the sports officer of Mandaue City. Last December, she earned her Doctorate Degree in Public Administration.

While she is missing the thrill of competitive running, she is also enjoying this new chapter of her life that allows her to do more.

“Marathon is like life in many ways—it’s a journey filled with ups and downs, challenges and triumphs. It teaches you resilience, perseverance and the importance of staying focused on your goals,” said Tabal.


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