Ernie Gawilan, the 30-year-old champion swimmer, competed in the 2016 Paralympics and was the first Filipino gold medalist at the Asian Para Games in 2018. Now, he competed at the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo, where he carried his country’s flag in the closing ceremony.
Born in 1991, Gawilan survived an attempted abortion that left him with an underdeveloped left arm and no legs.
In a 2014 interview, he told SPIN.ph, “I must have been a good swimmer even in my mother’s womb because I survived the abortion. I just swam”.
They had reported that Gawilan’s mother had decided to undergo an abortion. Although Gawilan survived, his father abandoned him and his mother sadly died of cholera when he was just 5 months old.
Gawilan was subsequently raised by his grandparents. According to the Manila Standard, he sadly suffered bullying and ridicule for his appearance during his childhood. His life changed when, aged 9, a businessman noticed him – and persuaded his grandfather to send him to a centre for youths with disabilities in Davao City.
It was there that he embraced a ‘new family’: the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic at Our Lady of Victory Training Center. Ernie relocated to Samal Island to serve as a housekeeper for the nuns in 2000. On the island, he discovered his love of water.
He explained: “When I am in the water my physical disability was not visible… I look like a normal person”.
During this time he was noticed by swimming coach, Jude Corpuz, who saw Ernie’s desire to swim and invited him to join his swim team for people with disabilities.
“We need to be fighters in life”.
Ernie entered his first swimming competition in the 2008 Philippine Olympic Festival, but he was almost thrown out after forgetting his swimming trunks. He begged officials to let him compete in his cargo pants, which would leave him at a disadvantage. He still finished second and captured the attention of Arnel Aba who came first place and then brought Ernie to Manila to join the national team.
Ernie continued to excel and went on to compete worldwide in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar, India, Japan, New Zealand and Italy, winning over a dozen international medals.
In a short film released in 2017 called “Gawilan”, he discussed his passion for his sport and his reliance on the love and support of his family and coaches to succeed and overcome his history of bullying. He said, “I used to hide myself. I used to be ashamed of myself, ashamed of why I was born like this”. But, he added, because of swimming, “I felt like I escaped from a shell”.
“There’s a purpose for us in this world”, he explained. “We need to be fighters in life”.
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said: “It is wonderful to hear the story of Ernie’s inspiring triumph over adversity thanks to his passion for swimming and the support of his family and friends. We wish him the best of luck in this year’s Paralympics, and in the rest of his professional endeavours”.