Nievarez sends off bright gold hopes by going where no Filipino rower has ever been before
TOKYO—About the same time the president of the country’s gymnastics federation was studying the video of American gymnastics star Simone Biles, rower Cris Nievarez was cutting through the surface of the Sea Forest Waterway here, giving Team Philippines a welcome dose of positivity as it began its hunt for medals in the Tokyo Olympics on Friday.
An admitted long shot for a medal, the 21-year-old Nievarez managed to provide the country with an ideal start: He qualified for the quarterfinals of the men’s single sculls a day before Team Philippines sends two of its world champions into action in different venues here.
“It feels great, first race, first try; this is for the country,” said Nievarez, who placed third in Heat 5 of the event in 7:22.97. He finished behind Croatia’s Damir Martin (7:09.17), the 2016 Rio Olympics silver medalist, and Russian Alexander Vyazovkin (7:14.95), the world indoor champion.
Nievarez wasn’t really expected to fire up the country’s medal machine here, but at a time when a raging pandemic has taught people to celebrate little victories, there was no diminishing the Filipino rower’s triumph: Nievarez, only the third Filipino rower to campaign in the Summer Games, bested the two others before him by making the quarterfinals.
Ground to make
More importantly, it provided a shot of motivation to a delegation that looks to end a gold medal chase here.
“It’s a good start for Team Philippines here in the Tokyo Olympics,” said Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham “Bambol” Tolentino. “Nievarez qualifying in the quarterfinals on the first day is a good testament that our athletes have prepared well, despite the pandemic.”
One look at the times, though, shows how much ground—or water, to be more apt—Nievarez has to cover if he wants to take his Olympic journey a bit farther.
“We will study the times of all those who qualified, take a look at who I might face in the quarterfinals, and figure out the time I need to chase after,” he said.
Reigning world champions Carlos Yulo of gymnastics and Nesthy Petecio of boxing will try to fan the spark lit by Nievarez as they try to validate their statuses as gold medal favorites.
And Yulo will do so without a valuable prop: A triple twist, double forward stunt that gymnastics chief Cynthia Carrion said would have been a sure gold.
Carrion studied a clip of Biles pulling off the same trick, known also as the “triple-double,” and said Yulo is capable of doing it, but his coach was worried about the Filipino making a perfect landing.
“If he misses the landing, that’s automatic zero,” Carrion said.
Carrion said that’s what happened to Russian star Nikita Nagornyy in the world championships, allowing Yulo to run away with the crown.
Nagornyy will be Yulo’s biggest threat for the gold in the floor exercise, but Carrion said the Russian’s performance has dipped leading to the Olympics.
“He [Nagornyy] did 6.6 in his last competition,” Carrion said. “If Nikita does 6.6 here and Caloy makes 6.8, then Caloy’s done it.”
Petecio, meanwhile, faces Congo’s Marcelat Sakobi Matshu at Kokugikan Stadium, where she will be one of the favorites in the women’s featherweight (54 to 57 kilograms).
The reigning world women’s featherweight champion is expected to emerge triumphant from that match, but a victory puts her straight across the ring from Taiwanese world No. 1 Lin Yu-ting.
While she will be an underdog in that match, Petecio looks like an athlete with a chip on her shoulder after needing to qualify through her rankings because she failed to snatch an outright berth in an Olympic qualifying tournament.
“You reap what you sow,” Petecio said on missing an automatic ticket to Tokyo. “We sowed since 2018, 2019 and that allowed us to reap the fruits of our labor, our rankings.”
Like Yulo, Petecio is also a reigning world champion. But the 29-year-old boxer from Davao puts little weight on her current crown.
“That’s in the past, that’s done, This is a new medal to chase. We can’t bring our records to this new fight,” she said.
Kurt Barbosa, meanwhile, faces huge odds in his opening bout in the -58kg class of men’s taekwondo.
Barbosa, ranked 16th, faces top seed Jang Jun of Korea, the 2019 world champion who is expected to run away with the gold here.
Capping the Filipinos stint in Day 2 of the Olympics is swimmer Remedy Rule, who will see action in the 100 meter fly heats.
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