What makes the first Filipino Olympics medalist a ‘hero’
A swimmer and a fighter, Ilocano Teofilo Yldefonso was.
Hidilyn Diaz’ silver finish at the Rio Olympics is historic for at least two good reasons: One, that she’s the first Filipino to get a rank in the prestigious world tournament after 20 years; two, that it’s the first non-boxing feat we’ve had there. The last Filipino Olympian who brought home a medal before Diaz, as we all know, was boxer Onyok Velasco—who is recently causing quite a stir with his claim that the government never awarded him with the promised incentives, after winning a silver medal in 1996.
Curious which Filipino started the wave of Olympians waving the Philippine banner in the Games? His name is Teofilo Yldefonso, who won two consecutive bronzes in the men’s 200-m breaststroke, in Amsterdam in 1928 and in Los Angeles in 1932. Of this, he is the only Filipino athlete to have won back-to-back medals at the Olympics.
Yldefonso was born in Piddig, Ilocos Norte in 1903. He was orphaned early along with the rest of his brothers. In a statement by the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISOFH) upon his induction in 2010, “he learned to swim by teaching himself in the knee-deep Guisit River near his home” and that “he swam every day in the river and would help the women cross the river and carry the clothes to wash.”
At around 18, Yldefonso got enlisted in the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts. It was an American-controlled division of natives assigned to the US Army’s Philippine Department. He excelled as a swimmer while in the camp, training at military installation swimming pools. He had no coach, but would have no hesitation joining regional meets including the Far Eastern Games in 1923, 1927, 1930, and 1934. ISOFH documented how he was "a standout breaststroke swimmer,” beating Japan’s Hall of Famers Yoshi Tsuruta and Reizo Koike among others.
‘Modern breaststroke’ pioneer
What made Yldefonso the hot stuff among swimmers even earning him the nickname “The Father of Modern Breaststroke”? It was his distinct style of the technique in contrast to what was popular that time.
Yldefonso later joined his third Olympics attempt and placed seventh. In his 16 years as a swimmer, he is said to have gathered 144 medals. But it wasn’t his decorated swimming career that only made him an important bookmark in history. The Olympian, along with other Filipino and American soldiers, was also there at the Japanese-orchestrated Death March in Bataan during World War II. He survived the actual march but met his death at the Concentration Camp in Capas, Tarlac.
Hero to remember
Here’s the more interesting part: His life could have been saved. That is, if it wasn't for Yldefonso’s swimming rival Tsuruta, who was in the Japanese army and also a lieutenant, only learning about the Filipino athlete's inclusion in the march a little too late. The colonizer would command his friend's release, but Yldefonso reportedly stayed with his men and just went with what fate had for him and his fellows..
Truly, he has brought pride to the Philippines and wielded enouch courage to stand by FIlipinos, Yldefonso, a dad of four, would be honored with a monument erected by the Ilocos Norte government in his honor in 2006. It’s there if you visit the Piddig Municipal Plaza in his hometown.