PHILIPPINE NEWS SERVICE — As the clock was winding down to its last few seconds in the third round, Mary Antoinette Rivero, watching the action on a big Panasonic TV set inside the athletes’ quarters, shook her head and felt the pain of seeing a dear teammate lose in a taekwondo match.
And all of a sudden, Rivero, Toni to relatives, friends and fellow athletes, found herself alone to carry the fight for Team Philippines in its desperate battle to salvage a medal of any color in the 29th Olympic Games that’s coming to an end.
At around 10 in the morning, the 21-year-old Rivero takes on Croatian Sandra Saric in a round of 16 match, mindful of the big expectations of her 90 million-plus countrymen as she begins her campaign in a division loaded with heavyweights in the sport.
“I’m okay and looking forward to my fight tomorrow (today),” said Rivero on the eve of the fight, one of eight scheduled in the 57-kg division starting at 9 a.m. at the Beijing University of Science and Technology in the outskirts of this booming capital city.
“I’m in good spirit because i know the country is behind me. I will do my best,” added the two-time Olympian in a text message relayed to Filipino sportswriters by Philippine Olympic Committee Chairman and taekwondo boss Robert Aventajado yesterday afternoon.
The Ateneo freshman who is taking up inter-disciplinary studies rested for a few hours after taking lunch at the Village yesterday, read her favorite book and answered some text messages before working out in the afternoon just before weigh-in at 4.
“Handa na siya. Let’s pray for her,” said coach Raul Samson of Toni, who’s now making her second appearance on the world’s biggest sporting stage after competing as a young girl of 16 four years ago in the Athens Olympics.
Toni became the lone medal hope for the embattled Team Philippines following the losses of Tshomlee Go and boxer Harry Tanamor, the only two other Filipino athletes given a chance to make a podium finish in this Summer Games which ends this Sunday.
They both fell right in their first bouts, with Tanamor losing to Ghana’s Manyo Plange in their round of 32 bout in the light-fly class (3-6) last week and Go, tentative and looking lost, dropping a 0-1 decision to Australian Ryan Carneli on Wednesday.
When Rivero climbs onto the blue, one meter- high mat of the well-maintained gymnasium, she will face a fighter toughened by a number of stints in international competitions like the Olympics and world championship.
Yes my dear, Saric is not just a pretty face from Senj, Croatia.
The 24-year-old was a veteran of the 2004 Olympics where she didn’t make it past the quarterfinal round while campaigning as a welterweight (57-67 kg). But in the world championships, she bagged a silver medal in 2003 and a bronze in 2005 and 2007.
She tried the middleweight division only this year, and soon found out there’s hope in this one after winning the European championship held in Rome, Italy.
A very superstitious woman — she wears a pair of lucky socks and carries a picture of a saint everytime she competes — Saric is also seeking a repeat victory when she meets our dear Toni this morning.
Toni won’t never forget the 5-foot-9, 143-pound Saric. She was the same woman who beat her in a close semifinal bout during the Manchester qualifying last year. With that defeat, Rivero missed clinching a berth for the Olympics and needed to win a silver medal in the Asian qualifying to make it here.
Almost everyone is calling Toni’s bracket as the ‘Group of Death’. It’s true in the sense that the lower half of the draw where the Filipina belongs is loaded with talents.
There is Hwang Kyung-seon, the Athens bronze medalist who said she has learned the lessons and promised to do a lot better “because I’m more experienced this time and will no longer do the same mistakes.”
There is Gwladys Epanque of France, a veteran who has lost the gold medal each time she met Hwang in the world championship. She ranks second behind Greek Elisavet Mystakidou in Europe right now.
And there is Japanese Yoriko Okamoto, a veteran of three Olympics and the oldest taekwondo athlete at 36. But make no mistake, she’s still tough as ever, and has been picked to be in the mix when she makes her swan song.
Hwang, the first Korean to compete in two consecutive Olympics, will face United Arab Emirates’ Mai-tha Almaktoum at 10:15 a.m. while Okamoto faces Marianas’ Mouna Benabderrassoul 15 minutes later.
Aventajado said he is confident Toni will do a lot better this time. “She’s a tough girl. May kumpiyansa ako kay Toni. We expect a better fight tomorrow,” Aventajado told RP sportswriters over lunch yesterday. “Ma-tapang na bata.”