, September 1, 2005 
(STAR) All their medals and trophies combined would take an eternity to count.

But the reason why these 12 Filipinos were chosen as the 23rd Southeast Asian Games Ambassadors goes beyond the numbers. They are the symbols of athletic excellence the country has produced, the cornerstones of a rich history in Philippine sports.

"To belong to this group of winners and world champions, it’s really an honor," said basketball great Allan Caidic.

With Caidic are shooter Nathaniel "Tac" Padilla, athletics greats Lydia de Vega-Mercado and Elma Muros-Posadas, bowler Paeng Nepomuceno, equestrienne Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski, swimmers Eric Buhain and Akiko Thomson, boxer Mansueto "Onyok" Velasco, badminton queen Weena Lim, taekwondo jin Monsour del Rosario and billiards legend Efren "Bata" Reyes.

Words like legendary, champion and icon best described the 12 Filipinos — athletes who, in their prime, worked hard to win and, now as ambassadors, serve as the rallying point of millions of Filipinos as the Philippine hosting of the SEA Games draws closer.

"Being considered an ambassador, it’s a serious commitment to the country," Padilla said. "It’s not just about inspiring people to watch the Games. It’s also about getting them involved."

And nobody has been more involved than Padilla, who has participated in all but one SEA Games since the country joined the biennial meet in 1977. The other distinction the pistol and rapid-fire shooter enjoys is the fact that he is the only Filipino to bring home at least one medal in every Games.

Nepomuceno, who owns a record four World Cup titles, and Reyes, former World No.1 in pocket billiards, didn’t enjoy the same longevity in the SEA Games but they’ve both won enough in their respective fields to boost RP sports with their feats.

In the SEA Games, Nepomuceno’s best year was in 1981 when he won three gold medals in front of the hometown crowd.

Reyes’s best performance in the regional meet was in the ’99 Games in Brunei when he won two golds that added to a great season capped by his being named RP’s Athlete of the Year.

Cojuangco-Jaworski, the Athlete of the Year in 2002, will be spearheading the RP cause in equestrian — the first time the sport will be featured in the SEA Games. And who’s better to lead the Filipinos’ charge than the woman who won the gold medal in the individual showjumping event in the Asian Games in 2002.

De Vega-Mercado was named queen of Asian tracks after she won the golds in the 100-meter in the 1982 and the 1986 Asian Games.

Besides winning nine golds in her SEA Games career, De Vega-Mercado is also a two-time Olympian.

De Vega-Mercado’s equivalent in swimming is Akiko Thomson.

Thomson, who would go on to swim in three Olympics, participated in five SEA Games events between 1987 and 1995 when she won a total of seven gold medals.

But the most accomplished swimmer of his generation is Eric Buhain. No other Filipino male athlete has won the Best Male Athlete of the SEA Games title until Buhain did the trick in 1991 after he took home six gold medals, broke two records and helped the Philippines come to within a gold of the Games overall championship.

Another heroine to the Miracle of ’91 is Muros-Posadas. When she won the long-jump that year, she jumped into the record books as well with her fourth straight gold. Overall Muros-Posadas, also a double-bronze winner in the Asian Games, has won 13 golds overall in the SEA Games.

Velasco also came out of 1991 a gold medal winner in the light-flyweight division — a feat he accomplished again in the 1993 Singapore Games and then in the 1994 Asian Games. But the most unforgettable moment of his life would be in 1996 when he came close to winning the first RP Olympic gold in Atlanta.

It was also in the Atlanta Games where Lim became the first Filipino shuttler to make the Olympics. In a sport dominated in the region by Malaysia and Indonesia Lim, considered one of the best local players , took home a bronze a year later in the 1997 SEA Games.

Del Rosario also reached his peak when he participated in — and reached the quarterfinals — of the Seoul Olympics in 1986. Ranked the No.1 jin for seven years, he won SEA Games golds in 1987 and 1989.

When RP basketball placed first in 1985, Caidic was part of the gold-medal winning team. He never played in the SEA Games since but he was part of the 1986 squad that won the ABC and four Asian Games team, including the squad that won the silver in Beijing in 1990.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

All rights reserved