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Game Changers 2021: The year of the Filipino athlete

From champions to medalists, to record breakers and historic moments, the year 2021 has been a great year for Philippine sports.

Some even went as far as changing the Philippine sports landscape, one way or another. To recap the great year that was, GMA Sports recognizes the top moments and personalities that made 2021 remarkable.

Here are our 2021 Game Changers:

1. Hidilyn Diaz

Hidilyn Diaz achieved history back in July when she won the Philippines' first Olympic gold medal. Diaz led the Philippine Olympic delegation which made its best Olympic finish since the country first joined in 1924. The Filipina weightlifter claimed the gold after lifting a total of 224 kilograms in the women's 55-kg event.

With the historic feat, Diaz was rewarded by the government and the private sector at least P30 million cash, residential properties, flights, and a brand new car.

Aside from winning the gold medal, this year is a memorable one for Diaz as she got engaged with her coach and boyfriend Julius Naranjo. Check out her weightlifting-inspired ring!

2. Carlos Yulo

After falling short in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Yulo eventually redeemed himself in the Gymnastics World Championships in Japan. While he failed to defend his crown in the floor exercise, the Filipino gymnast reigned supreme in the vault event. Aside from vault, he also won a silver medal in the parallel bars event.

3. Olympic boxing medalists

Boxing has always been a big sport in the Philippines and the year 2021 saw the Philippine boxing team winning not just one, but three medals in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Nesthy Petecio made history by being the first Filipina to win an Olympic boxing medal by finishing silver in the women's featherweight division, while Carlo Paalam added another silver medal to the haul after a runner-up finish in the men's flyweight event.

Eumir Marcial also bagged a silver medal in the men's middleweight division. Months after the Olympics, Marcial married his long-time girlfriend. What a year for Eumir, as well!

Professional boxers such as Nonito Donaire, Jr., John Riel Casimero, Jonas Sultan, and Mark Magsayo also won big fights this year.

4. EJ Obiena

Even prior to the Olympics, Obiena has been getting medals and resetting the national pole vault record from all over the world. With his achievements, many looked forward to Obiena's stint in the Summer Games.

He may have not won a medal in the Olympics, but his persistence and passion in his sport led him to another achievement: breaking the Asian pole vault record. The Filipino Olympian cleared the 5.93 meter mark, breaching the 5.92 meter record previously held by Igor Potapovich of Kazakhstan.

Obiena's name recently made rounds in the news after his sports association, Philippine Athletics Track and Field Association, alleged that Obiena falsified the liquidation of his financial assistance. The Philippine Olympic Committee recently declared PATAFA chief Phillip Juico as "persona non grata" following their ethics committee investigation on the issue of harassment, as filed by Obiena.

5. Yuka Saso

Yuka Saso made waves in Philippine sports this year after winning the US Women's Open title back in June. With her win, Saso matched South Korean Park In-bee as the youngest winners in the championship's history at 19 years, 11 months and 17 days.

Saso was also a part of the Philippine delegation to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, along with Bianca Pagdanganan in the women's side, and Juvic Pagunsan in the men's side. However, she did not land on the podium.

In November, Saso made a big decision by choosing to be a Japanese citizen.

6. Alex Eala

Early this year, Alex Eala already achieved another milestone in her young tennis career by winning her first professional title in the W15 ITF Manacor tournament.

She then continued her journey by making quarterfinals appearances in the other tournaments she joined. However, probably Eala's biggest achievement this year is winning the juniors doubles title at the French Open, alongside Oksana Selekhmeteva. This is her second Grand Slam title following the Australian Open juniors doubles title she won in 2020.

Aside from Eala, Filipina-Canadian Leylah Fernandez also made waves in the US Open after a runner-up finish against Emma Raducanu.

7. Filipino imports

Filipino athletes proved that they are world-class as many basketball and volleyball players took their talents overseas.

Following Thirdy Ravena, his brother Kiefer, pro player Ray Parks, collegiate standouts Kobe Paras, brothers Juan and Javi Gomez de Liaño, big man Kemark Cariño, and Gilas Pilipinas player Dwight Ramos also made the big jump to the Japan Professional Basketball League (B.League). Filipino player Matthew Aquino also joined a team in the B.League as a local player.

Meanwhile, Kai Sotto took his talents to Australia for the National Basketball League and signed with the Adelaide 36ers. Jack Animam also made history as the first Filipina player to play professionally abroad as she joined Radnicki in Serbia's First Women's Basketball League of Serbia.

Volleyball stars also made waves abroad with Jaja Santiago and her team Ageo Medics winning the title in the Japan V.League's V Cup. She is still with the same team in the ongoing season of the league, while Marck Espejo is with FC Tokyo and Bryan Bagunas is with Oita Miyoshi in the men's side of the league. Mylene Paat also took her talents to Thailand recently when she joined Nakhonratchasima volleyball club.

8. Carlo Biado

Carlo Biado joined an elite club of billiard players after winning the 2021 US Open Pool title. He joined Efren 'Bata' Reyes, the only other Philippine representative to win the title, in the tournament's list of champions.

9. Jordan Clarkson and Jalen Green

Filipinos truly shine in basketball as players with Filipino heritage made waves in the NBA.

Utah Jazz and former Gilas Pilipinas player Jordan Clarkson won the Sixth Man of the Year award, besting other candidates such as his teammate Joe Ingles and New York Knick's Derrick Rose. Clarkson also spoke out against Asian-American hate and even helped his kababayans who were targeted by it.

Meanwhile, another Filipino player entered the league as Jalen Green was picked second overall by the Houston Rockets, following Cade Cunningham.

The two met already when the Jazz visited the Rockets, with Clarkson's Utah squad walking away with the victory.

10. Philippine domination in the Mobile Legends esports scene

The Philippines has been making its mark in the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang international scene as it continues to claim international titles.

Early this year, Bren Esports won the M2 World Championship against the Burmese Ghouls of Myanmar. Months later, the Philippines again bagged another title as Execration bagged the 2021 Mobile Legends Southeast Asia Cup title.

Recently, Philippine representatives Blacklist International and Onic PH faced off in the finals match of the M3 World Championship, assuring the Philippines of their second straight title. Blacklist International swept Onic, cementing their status as one of the teams to beat in the world.

11. Gilas Pilipinas sweeps South Korea in the FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers

Considered as their archrival in international basketball, Gilas Pilipinas swept South Korea in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup Qualifiers held at home in Clark, Pampanga. Young Gilas stars such as SJ Belangel and Dwight Ramos stood out in the tournament, which also saw the Philippines defeating Indonesia to qualify for the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup.

12. NCAA Season 96

Overcoming the odds brought by the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, NCAA Season 96 proved that collegiate sports could still be conducted. The league, hosted this season by Colegio de San Juan de Letran, held virtual tournaments for speed kicking, poomsae, and chess for its member schools.

With its broadcast partner GMA Network, the NCAA became the only collegiate league in the Philippines to conduct sporting tournaments amid the pandemic, proving the Philippine sports can "Rise Up Stronger."

Honorable mentions:

-Margielyn Didal's viral Olympic moments

-Eugene Torre inducted in the World Chess Hall of Fame

-Professional boxers Nonito Donaire, John RIel Casimero, Jonas Sultan, and Mark Magsayo winning their fights

—JMB, GMA News