Kayla Sanchez primed to bring PH swimming back on Asian Games podium
Visibly ecstatic with the warm reception, Olympic medalist Kayla Noelle Sanchez announced her pledge to swim for the Philippines over a year ago.
That commitment will be chronicled in full view once the pool races in the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China speed off less than a week from now.
Sanchez switched nationalities after boosting Canada’s stock in aquatics by helping the latter pick up two medals in women’s relay—a silver in the 4x100m freestyle and a bronze in the 4x100m medley—during the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
But who really is Sanchez and what are the goods that she could bring to the national swim team?
Born to Filipino migrants Noel from Mabalacat, Pampanga and Susana who traces her roots to Baguio, the 22-year-old Sanchez became a steady source of medals for Team Canada in international competitions before shifting her allegiance back to her parents’ motherland.
She began donning the Canadian flag in major overseas tourneys in the 2017 World Junior Swimming Championships in Indianapolis where Sanchez fished out a silver in the 200m individual medley and a bronze in the 100m freestyle.
Kayla was also instrumental in their sweep of the gold medals in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle and the 4x100m medley in the same meet where the team reset the junior world standard and championship record.
On the same year, Sanchez was elevated to the senior ranks and saw action in the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She was part of the squad that wound up fourth in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay event.
Sanchez then became a mainstay of the elite Canadian aquatics squad, representing the country in the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju. Her team bagged a pair of bronzes in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays in the South Korea worlds.
With an impressive track record, Sanchez was tapped to suit up for the Tokyo Olympics and secured a silver alongside Penny Oleksiak, Rebecca Smith and Maggie Mac Neil in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
The quartet added a bronze medal for Canada in the 4x100m medley relay with Sanchez aiding the team to finish on top of the heats but was later replaced by Oleksiak in the finals.
Sanchez recorded a personal best of 53.12 seconds individually in the heats of the 100m freestyle and qualified to the semifinals at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre only to withdraw in a bid to conserve energy in their fourth-place finish of the 4x200m freestyle relay.
Still on a roll following the Olympics, Sanchez played a pivotal role in the three gold medals and a silver that the relay team won in the 2021 FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi.
Sanchez and her teammates were later blessed by another silver performance in the 4×100 freestyle relay and two bronzes during the 2022 World Aquatics Championships from June 17 to July 3.
Three weeks later, Philippine swimming announced Sanchez’s desire to represent Team Philippines in major tournaments overseas through the efforts of former swimming head Lailani Velasco.
World Aquatics gave Sanchez the green light to compete for the Philippines beginning July 6, 2023 with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China her coming-out party.
Sanchez will compete in the women’s 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle as well as in the 100m backstroke, events where she could end the national swimming team’s medal drought in the Asiad.
No Filipino tanker has gone onto the medal platform of the Asian Games since Raymond Papa’s pair of bronzes in the men’s 100m and 200m backstroke during the 1998 edition in Bangkok, Thailand.
The gold medal in the Asiad has likewise become a rare commodity since William Wilson’s victory in the men’s 200m freestyle in 1982 New Delhi, India. Wilson also captured a silver in the 400m freestyle.
Sanchez can boast of the clockings capable of ending the wait of more than four decades.
Her personal best of 53.12 seconds in the 100m free is faster than previous Asian Games gold medalist Rikako Ikee of Japan (53.27) while she’s just a blink slower than Ikee’s Asian Games gold record of 24.53 seconds in the 50m free with her 24.68 clocking.
In the 100m backstroke, Sanchez’s 59.78 is faster than Asian Games bronze medalist Chen Jie of China (1:00.28).
She will be using the Asian Games as a springboard to achieve the qualifying times in the 2024 Paris Olympics where Sanchez vows to accomplish an individual medal finish.