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Swimmer Gary Bejino kicks off Team Philippines campaign in Tokyo Para Games

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All eyes will be on swimmer Gary Bejino, who will be the first Filipino campaigner to plunge into action in the World Para Games as he competes in the men’s SM6 200-meter individual medley at the Tokyo Aquatic Centre here on Thursday.

A back-to-back gold medalist in the ASEAN Para Games in the 2015 Singapore and 2017 Malaysia editions, respectively, Bejino is racing in lane No. 7 in the second of three heats starting at 9:32 a.m. (8:32 a.m. Manila time).

The top eight overall finishers in the heats will enter the finals scheduled at 5:22 p.m. (4:22 p.m.) later in the day.

Bejino would have been joined by another para-athlete in competing in the second day of action of the World Para Games in the stint supported by the Philippine Sports Commission. But powerlifter Achelle Guion, who also set to compete Thursday, had to stay at home in the country after testing positive for COVID 19 on the day of the PH contingent’s departure for Tokyo last Sunday, the Philippine Paralympic Committee announced last Tuesday.

Swimming coach Tony Ong said that Bejino felt a bit nervous by the fact that this was his first Para Games “and competing in the highest level of competition. But I told him not to worry and enjoy. In enjoying the process and you make it to the finals, then let’s take it from there.”

“Medyo kinakabahan po kasi ako ang unang sasabak sa atin pero kaya pong labanan,” said the 23-year-old athlete, who was electrocuted at the age of seven that left his entire body badly burnt and prompted attending doctors to amputate his right arm and left leg.

The swimmer’s illustrious teammate, Ernie Gawilan, who won a pair of gold and silver medals in the 2018 Asian Para Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, is set to make his debut in the men’s SM7 200-meter individual medley event on Friday.

Ong said that Bejino and Gawilan swam 3,000 meters each – or 60 laps in a 50-meter pool – last Tuesday and were tapering off so merely did build-up swims and practiced their dives on Wednesday.

Former national swimming standout turned coach Ral Rosario, who has also handled both swimmers, had only praises for both, citing not only their skill and talent but excellent work ethic.

“Ibang sklase yong determination ni Gary and ni Ernie. They are able to block out pain and you can push them as hard as you can and they don’t complain,” Rosario, a gold medalist in the men’s 200-meter freestyle in the 1978 Bangkok Asian Games, noted in an interview from Manila.

“They (Bejino and Gawilan) are very trainable, and they accept what coaches tell them to do. It’s very hard to find athletes with that same kind of mentality,” said Rosario, a two-time Olympian, who was the chef de mission of the national paralympic squad in the 2015 ASEAN Para Games in Singapore.

Rosario said that he has kept tabs regularly with Ong “and he keeps me updated on the two swimmers. When he has concerns, he calls me up and we talk about it.”