Ernie Gawilan was just 30 years old when he first made headlines after competing in the 2016 Paralympics as a swimmer. He also became the first Filipino gold medalist at the Asian Para Games in 2018. In 2021, he went to Tokyo for the Paralympics, where he competed and carried his country’s flag in the closing ceremony. However, all of these accomplishments were not easy for Gawilan.

His life began in 1991 in the Philipines, when he survived an abortion that his mother attempted. The botched abortion left him with no legs and an underdeveloped left arm. “I must have been a good swimmer even in my mother’s womb because I survived the abortion. I just swam,” Ernie joked to in 2014.

As if this wasn’t enough, his father abandoned him and his mother shortly after and his mother died of a rare disease when he was just 5 months old. Gawilan’s grandparents then welcomed him into their home with open arms. However, growing up still wasn’t easy as he endured bullying and ridicule for his appearance.

However, when Gawilan was 9 years old, this all changed. He was noticed by a businessman named Vicente Ferrazzini who decided to take a chance on Gawilan. Ferrazzini convinced Gawilan’s grandfather to send him to a youth training center for the disabled called Our Lady of Victory Training Center in Davao City. There, he met the Maryknoll Sisters of St. Dominic, who are in charge of the center, and other disabled youth that became like his family. 

In 2000, he moved yet again to Samai Island to be the housekeeper for the Maryknoll Sisters. This was where he was first introduced to and fell in love with the water. Gawilan expressed his happiness stating “When I am in the water my physical disability was not visible. I look like a normal person.”

Gawilan was then scouted by swimming coach Mark Jude Corpuz when Corpuz noticed his desire to swim, but also saw him struggling. Corpuz made Gawilan part of a persons with disability (PWD) swimming team he was handling and helped Gawilan train. 

His first swimming competition was at the 2008 Philippine Olympic Festival. However, he was almost disqualified after forgetting his swimming trunks. He pleaded with officials to let him compete in his heavier cargo pants even though it left him at a bigger disadvantage. Still, he finished second and caught the attention of the winner, Arnel Aba. Aba then took Ernie to Manila to join the national team.

Gawain also competed in numerous tournaments throughout India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, and Singapore and had won at least 15 international medals by 2014. He also became the most medalled athlete of the Philippine delegation with three bronze medals.

While training for the 2016 Paralympics, he credited God for his recovery after becoming ill. “Last month I got sick, but I was able to get back because of my faith in God. Without Him I cannot make it, I trust everything in Him,” he said. On social media, he is known to share Bible verses and writes messages like “God is the key.” 

However, his faith in God didn’t use to be as strong as it is now. A fellow teammate, Rose Charlie Bustos, revealed that Gawilan wasn’t happy with himself and blamed God for his condition. “I did not care about God before,” Bustos quoted Gawilan as saying. “I blamed him of what I have become, of how he created me, and my ending to be unloved and alone”

Gawilan, however, eventually encountered God through swimming, and realized that “God has never abandoned him,” Bustos said.

In a five-minute film released in 2017 called “Gawilan,” he revealed his passion for swimming, his reliance on the love and support of his family and coaches, and to overcome bullies. In the film, he states, “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. We need to be fighters in life.

In August of 2021, Gawilan also competed in the Tokyo Paralympics where he finished in 6th place overall. We greatly look forward to seeing Gawilan compete in the future.

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Human Defense Initiative.