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[#TatagPinoy] Ernie Gawilan: Kicking Disability in the Face

by Israelbelle Ferolino and Maria Nicole Dominique Dimayacyac

Despite having underdeveloped legs, Ernie Gawilan became a multi-awarded and internationally acclaimed swimmer. Aside from being the first Filipino gold medalist in the Asian Para Games, Ernie has won at least a dozen international medals. Read on and be inspired by his story.

Ernie came from Davao City. According to his lolo and lola who served as his foster parents, Ernie is a product of an extra-marital affair. Out of fear from social stigma, his mother attempted an abortion which led to his physical condition. His lower legs are missing and his left arm is malformed.

As someone who has a physical impairment, Ernie was a subject of bullying and mockery in his childhood.

“Hindi ko talaga malilimutan ‘yung kapitbahay namin doon sa bundok. Sinabihan ang lolo ko, Pedro, ba’t ‘di mo dalhin si Ernie doon sa Davao City para manglimos?”

That was a bitter memory that Ernie used as an inspiration to work hard. He promised to prove his neighbor wrong because he believed that people with disabilities have a future that doesn’t involve being a beggar.

However, life is cruel to Ernie. Soon, his grandparents died and after becoming an orphan, he did not have any choice but to stay at Our Lady of Victory Training Center where the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic took care of him. As destiny would have it, this foundation has a beach resort where Ernie had the opportunity to swim at his heart’s content.

“Pag nag swi-swimming ako, pakiramdam ko parang normal ako, parang di ako PWD.” Ernie recalls after he was asked how his affinity for swimming started. “Hindi katulad dito sa lupa na nadadapa ako.”

Eventually, one of the caregivers noticed his talent for swimming and taught him the basic strokes, and later on, a swimming coach invited him to be a part of a local swimming team for persons with disability. After placing second in his very first competition at Cagayan de Oro, he was immediately admitted to the national swimming team. Thus, a legend was born.

From then on, Ernie participated in a great number of competitions in Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, and Singapore and has won at least 15 international medals.

“Siguro pinakaproud ako at kaya kong ipagmalaki ang nangyare sa 2018 Asian Para Games na ginanap sa Indonesia. Isa kase yun sa pinakamataas na event sa Olympic sports,” says Ernie in a virtual interview with Now You Know.

The 2018 Asian Para Games is where Ernie cemented his reputation as one of the best swimmers in our country. In that competition, he became the first Filipino athlete from any sport to win a gold medal at the Asian Para Games.

One of his secret techniques during competition is mental visualization.

“Nag i-imagine lang ako palagi kung ano ang gagawin ko pag nasa call area na ako,” Ernie said. He closes his eyes and essentially daydreams himself achieving his goal.

He does this consistently so that when it comes down to race-time, his body moves on autopilot, having already swum the race a hundred times in his mind.

Recently, Ernie participated in the recently concluded Tokyo Paralympics held last August 2021. Despite the fear of getting a COVID infection, Ernie braved the competition and landed 10th in the 100m backstroke, 9th in the 200m individual medley, and 6th in the 400m freestyle

Even though he is an ordinary orphan from an ordinary town with missing body parts, Ernie managed to become a world-class athlete. Truly, Ernie Gawilan is a swimming wonder.


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