No Filipino gymnast has won a medal of any colour at the Olympic Games.
Carlos Yulo is trying to change that. He’s already made history for his country, twice, at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
First, in 2018, he became the first from his country to step onto the medal podium at the global gymnastics competition when he earned a bronze medal in the floor exercise final. In October, more history.
He struck gold at the World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, stunning the field in the floor exercise final. Next to last to go, Yulo delivered a near perfect exercise to jump to the top of the medals podium.
Humble beginnings and big moves
Yulo’s golden moment was more than a decade in the making.
Like many gymnastics stars before him, Yulo took to the sport naturally. One day when he was 7, Yulo and his grandfather, Rodrigo Frisco, went to a public park in Manila.
While his grandfather looked on, Yulo took to a young gymnast in the park, mimicking his moves with such ease that Frisco decided to take his grandson to a gymnastics class with Coach Rodrigo Ortero at the Rizal Memorial Complex.
His talent soon caught the attention of Gymnastics Association of the Philippines president Cynthia Carrion-Norton. Years later when the gymnast was 16, she would facilitate Yulo’s move to Tokyo to train under Japanese coach Munehiro Kugimiya.
Together, Kugimiya and Yulo have made history together.
A bronze breakthrough
That history began at the 2018 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. While men’s gymnastics typically has more diversity of country advancing to individual apparatus finals than in women’s, a Filipino gymnast advancing to an individual apparatus final was unprecedented.
Yulo qualified into the final just out of the medals in fourth. His spectacular routine days later earned him the bronze medal and history as the first Filipino medallist at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championships.
"I wasn’t expecting this,” Yulo told Olympic Channel at the time. “I’m shocked. I thought I was going to be fifth or sixth.”
He may have been shocked, but the gymnastics world was not: leading to that bronze medal, Yulo had set the stage with success at many international competitions on the floor including a silver medal at the Doha World Cup held in the same building as the World Championships months earlier.
A year later, Yulo again qualified to the floor final at the World Championships in Stuttgart. He was seventh in the qualifying around.
The penultimate competitor in the final, Yulo was spectacular and nearly flawless in his exercise. He earned a 15.300 score to leap frog Israel’s Artem Dolgopyat, who had been leading most of the final and hoping for history of his own.
“Last year, I was looking at my medal, and I was like, ‘I will get the gold medal next year,’” he told media afterward.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said of his win, still visibly shocked by his accomplishment.
A changed life
Following is accomplishments in Doha and Stuttgart, the expectations for Yulo have changed.
Despite having collected seven (out of a possible seven) medals at the recent Philippines-hosted Southeast Asian Games, including golds in the all-around and floor exercise, his performance was met with mixed reviews.
“There are so many things happening. When he’s in abroad, he is more focused,” Carrion-Norton told Rappler of her star pupil’s performance at the competition held in Manila.
“I’m not happy because he should be winning golds,” Carrion-Norton said. “He’s very distracted.”
For the 19-year-old, the Southeast Asian Games was somewhat of a victory tour post-Stuttgart, one which welcomed in adoring fans that have flocked to know more about him. Online his followings have surged with more than 200,000 on Twitter and more than 65,000 on Instagram.
In Germany, nobody knows me,” said Yulo. “It’s quite different [competing in my country]. Here, the people give more attention to the Philippine team.”
Attention that’s likely to follow him all the way to Tokyo 2020.