Courage fuels Gary Bejino in diving for success

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 14) – As a student, raising your hand during a recitation is an act of courage for you to fulfill the expectations of your teacher and classmates.

On one occasion, a curious high school student named Gary Bejino randomly volunteered himself when his Physical Education teacher asked their class who among them are interested to learn swimming.

"Nagtaas naman ako ng kamay, pero ang alam ko is yung langoy dagat lang. Trip ko lang din yun eh," said Bejino, who resided at that time with the Father Monti Foundation in Novaliches, Quezon City.

[Translation: I raised my hand, but the truth is I only know leisure swimming. It just wanted to try it back then.]

Little did Bejino know that his random raising of hand will be the start of his career, where he will eventually bring honor to the country.

After training for months, the then 15-year-old Bejino immediately competed for the National Capital Region (NCR) in the 2012 Palarong Pambansa for persons with disabilities, where he harvested three gold medals in the 50-meter breast stroke, back stroke, and freestyle events.

His winning performance in Palaro reached the Philippine Sports Association for the Differently Abled (now Philippine Paralympic Committee) and the national sports association gave him a spot in the national team for the 2013 Asian Youth Para Games in Malaysia, where he won a silver medal in the 100-meter freestyle event.

"Dapat hindi ako yung kukunin kasi dapat yung taga Region 9 yata yun, kasi mas mababa yung time niya kesa sa akin. Kaso gahol na sa oras so nag-decide si Coach Tony (Ong) na sa NCR na lang kumuha ng ipapadala sa Malaysia. Ako po yung napili ni Coach Tony," the now 23-year-old Bejino recalled.

[Translation: I should not have been the one picked to join the national team because it should be from Region 9, since he has a faster time than me. But time was running out so Coach Tony (Ong) decided to pick a swimmer from NCR to be sent to Malaysia. I was the one chosen by Coach Tony.]

From then on, Bejino gave more pride to the country by collecting medals in the ASEAN Para Games and the Asian Para Games. In the 2018 Asiad alone, he clinched a silver in the 200-meter individual medley event and two bronzes in the 100-meter backstroke and 100-meter freestyle categories.

Bejino's pool performance in the 2018 Asian Para Games in Indonesia was used as basis for his qualification to his first ever Paralympics in Tokyo, Japan this August.

RELATED: Mangliwan, Aceveda, Bejino secure tickets to Tokyo Paralympics 

"Hindi ko na naisip na makasali sa Paralympics kasi dahil sa pandemic, walang training at walang water time. Puro land training kami," said Bejino, who settled for virtual training sessions at his home in Tabaco City, Albay during the pandemic due to the closure of nearby swimming resorts.

[Translation: I never thought of competing in the Paralympics before due to the pandemic, where I don't have any training and water time. I'm just limited to land training.]

In Bejino's Paralympic debut, he will compete in four events for S6 swimmers: 200-meter individual medley, 50-meter butterfly, 400-meter freestyle, and 100-meter backstroke.

According to the International Paralympic Committee, S6 swimmers are those with "short stature or amputations, or moderate co-ordination problems on one side of their body, for example."

"Ang goal ko is mag-medal at makapasok sa finals para makapagbigay karangalan ako sa bansa natin (My goal is to win a medal and to qualify for the finals so that I can give pride to our country)," Bejino said.

The courage he had when he randomly took a chance at swimming during his high school days will be Bejino's source of strength, as he competes for the country's first Paralympic gold, along with five other para-athletes, including fellow swimmer and 2016 Rio Paralympian Ernie Gawilan.

"Nagtitiwala ako sa training namin na makakaya namin ito. Palagi kong (pinu-push) ang sarili ko na kailangan kong gawin ko ang best ko para sa laro na yun (I just trust what we're doing in training and we can do it. I always push myself to perform at my best every game)," Bejino said.

RELATED: More financial support pour in for Filipino para-athletes