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PH’s first Olympic medalist Teofilo Yldefonso: An officer and a sportsman

By Kimani Franco Published Aug 02, 2021 4:46 pm

The town of Piddig, Ilocos Norte, filled with its picturesque rolling hills and enveloped by freshwater, was once home to one of the Philippines’ most decorated athletes, Teofilo Yldefonso.

Cradled by the rich rivers of Dingris and Guisit, it also served as the training ground for one of swimming’s eventual apex predators, Yldefonso, dubbed as the country’s “Ilocano Shark.”

The Ilocos native represented the country during the Summer Games of 1928 in Amsterdam, Netherlands for the 200-meter breaststroke swimming event, where he clinched the bronze for the Philippines and the first ever Olympic medal from Southeast Asia.

He followed this up with another masterful performance when he competed at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, United States, capturing bronze once more to be the only athlete in Philippine history to ever win back-to-back Olympic events. A feat duplicated recently by the historic win of Hidilyn Diaz at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The Ilocano Shark

Perhaps best known in Philippine history for its role in the uprising against the expropriation of sugarcane wine or Basi Revolt during the Spanish occupation, the quaint municipality of Piddig is the hometown of Yldefonso, the first Filipino to win an Olympic medal.

Born 1903, one year removed from the atrocities of the Philippine-American War that bore witness to the shift of colonial power in the Islands, Teofilo and his two brothers practically raised themselves after their parents Felipe Yldefonso and Ancieta Cruz passed away at an early age.

Near the knee-deep Guisit River where the three brothers lived, Teofilo and siblings learned how to swim.

He joined the Philippine Scouts, an element of the United States Army Philippine Department comprised of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans during the US Occupation of the country at the turn of the 20th century.

Teofilo Yldefonso in his military uniform.  Photo from swimmingworldmagazine.com

His younger brother Teodor Yldfeonso recalled how the Ilocano Shark was well-received by his peers, both Americans and Filipinos alike during his stint in the military organization.

According to the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC), his time with the Philippine Scouts 57th Infantry Regiment enabled him to train with its makeshift pools in preparation for his competitions.

International competitions and recognitions

Following the sole Philippine Olympian David Nepomuceno who competed at the 1924 Games, Teofilo Yldefonso came close to bagging the country’s first gold at Amsterdam in 1928.

Yldefonso’s coach at the time, Candido Bartolome, who subsequently served as one of the proponents to introduce gymnastics in the Philippine curriculum, recalled a story on the night before the swimming finals. Based on the Piddig native’s performance during the preliminary heats, Yldefonso could’ve won it all come the final race.

During the night before, Yldefonso apparently felt warm and adjusted the heater in his room by turning it down. He woke up next day only to find out he was down with the flu and sniffles.

Yldefenso is credited for developing a unique style of doing the breaststroke, which he executed during the Games ‘by bringing the stroke more to the surface of the water rather than under the water, as was more common at the time.’ He is described by European texts as the ‘Father of the Modern Breaststroke.’

Allegedly, this led to his final performance falling short right towards the last three meters before the finish, resulting in rival athletes Erich Redemacher and Yoshiyuki Tsuruta of Germany and Japan taking the silver and gold medals, respectively, with Yldefonso at bronze.

The Ilocano Shark repeated in the 1932 Summer Games where, the country won a triad of bronze medals. He faced a familiar rival once again in Japanese swimmer Tsuruta when he pulled away with the gold medal, along with his countryman Reizo Koike for silver.

Despite Teofilo’s failed quest for the elusive gold medal, he dominated the swimming events in multiple Far Eastern Games, the precursor to the Asian Games.

In the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, three years before the eruption of World War II, but Nazi ideals were already in full swing, Yldefonso, along with his fellow athletes, were welcomed by party leader and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a stadium filled with 100,000 spectators.

Hitler himself was in attendance during the Filipino’s final Olympic attempt in archival video footage, which can be seen online that covered Yldefonso’s performance where he placed seventh.

Despite Teofilo’s failed quest for the elusive gold medal, he dominated the swimming events in multiple Far Eastern Games, the precursor to the Asian Games, the second-largest multi-sport event after the Olympic Games. He won four gold medals in the Far East Games’ 200m breaststroke event consecutively in 1923, 1927, 1930, and 1934.

In his swimming career that lasted for 16 years, Teofilo had amassed win after wins beyond his historical performances at the Olympics.

Yldefenso is credited for developing a unique style of doing the breaststroke, which he executed during the Games “by bringing the stroke more to the surface of the water rather than under the water, as was more common at the time.” He is described by European texts as the ‘Father of the Modern Breaststroke.”

He was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2010 by the Fédération internationale de natation (FINA) or the International Swimming Federation in English.

It can be argued that while he learned his foundations in swimming in Guisit River, his skills further developed as he launched his professional career that eventually led to multiple athletic triumphs on the international stage, which spanned a 16-year period.

Defending the Philippines in WW II

As an American colony, the Philippines was entangled heavily during the Pacific War on Dec. 8, 1942 when Japanese air raided Clark Field. The attacks severely decapitated the country’s defense, which had destroyed most of the American airpower in the Philippines.

Soon thereafter, the primary troops of the Japanese conducted its main landing in Lingayen Gulf on the 22nd of December, the very same location that the Allied forces will take in General Douglas MacArthur’s iconic return to the Islands.

Teofilo Yldefonso historical marker in Piddig, Ilocos Norte. Photo by Ambeth Ocampo on Facebook

As a member of the Philippine Scouts, eventually being inducted to the US Army as an authorized normal force, but with the suffice “PS” to designate as Philippine Scouts, Yldefonso served as a lieutenant when World War II broke out.

He would survive the onslaught of the battles and even the horrid events of the Bataan Death March. However, he perished due to injuries in an internment camp in Capas, Tarlac.

Although his remains were never found, a historical marker was erected for him in his hometown in Piddig, Ilocos Norte.

Yldefonso’s legacy

Teofilo’s contribution as a swimmer and a military officer is one of the most amazing stories yet largely remain untold in Philippine history. His unique style, the ‘Yldefonso stroke’ help future generations to elevate the level of competition in the sport.

Athletes in the country face a number of hardships starting from the most basic to receiving support from the national government to more institutions or avenues to advocate in pursuit of it.

Yldefonso’s climb to success as an athlete is largely due to his innovation and resolve to win. His legacy of modernizing the breaststroke is further evidence that there is a myriad of other talented and possibly unpolished athletes in the country that crave any semblance of support.

Filipinos around the world collectively rejoiced as Hidilyn Diaz held the barbell for her final lift aloft while she had the biggest smile after realizing she had just completed history.

It’s a moment that not only the athletes but also an entire nation felt reverberating in a time where such victories are few and far between. Truly, it’s a feeling everyone can support.

 Banner photo (right)  Yldefonso at lane No. 4 in a 1936 Olympics archival footage on YouTube