Some children have a terrible start to life, but there’s a real fighter inside of them that can help them overcome their difficulties and inspire others. This is just the case for Ernie Gawilan, the Philippines’ first ever gold medalist at the Asian Para Games.
The impressive young athlete survived his mother’s attempt to abort him. However, as a result of the attempt, he was left missing both of his lower legs and with an underdeveloped left arm.
To make matters worse, after his birth his father abandoned the family, and his mother died from cholera just five months later. The baby was left an orphan, but his grandfather stepped up to care for him.
Later on, at nine years of age, the youngster met businessman Vicente Ferrazzini, who encouraged the grandfather to send Gawilan to Our Lady of Victory Training Center for people with disabilities. There he was looked after by the Maryknoll sisters of St. Dominic.
A future swimming champ
After receiving a basic education, Ernie went on to become a housekeeper at another religious-operated training center. And it was there that his swimming career really began. Although, as the athlete shared in an interview with SPIN.ph in 2014:
I must have been a good swimmer even in my mother’s womb because I survived the abortion. I just swam.”
The swimmer also explained that throughout his childhood he’d suffered a lot of bullying due to his physical differences. Yet, as he shared: “When I am in the water my physical disability was not visible … I look like a normal person.”
With his passion for water came a great skill. A swimming coach, Jude Corpuz, spotted his talents and asked him to join the swimming team he’d created for those with disabilities.
From his first swimming competition at the Philippine Olympic Festival in 2008, Gawilan went on to compete in further international competitions, garnering an impressive array of medals along the way.
As he pointed out in the film Gawilan, which talks about his experience with bullying and his swimming career, Ernie says it was with the love and support of those around him that he was able to get over the shame he felt for his physical differences, and come out of his shell. Simply stated:
There’s a purpose for us in this world. We need to be fighters in life.”
As the swimming champion recently posted on his social media, he is now in full training for the Paris Paralympic Games in 2024, saying: “I’m working harder every day to push the limits of what’s possible – both on the field and in my community.”