Seven Philippines athletes to keep a close eye on at the 32nd Southeast Asian Games

Philippine billiards legend Efren Reyes will be gunning for a first Southeast Asian Games gold medal in 24 years this year, not that he needs anymore silverware as vindication in what has been a glorious career. NHAC NGUYEN/AFP via Getty Images

The Philippine delegation to the 32nd Southeast Asian Games to be held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia from May 5 to 15 lists over 840 athletes who will chase medals in 38 sports in an effort to improve on the country's fourth-place finish last year in Hanoi.

While focus will fall on the celebrated teams from men's and women's basketball and women's football, there are several individual athletes who are poised to steal the spotlight and use these Games as an affirmation of greatness, a road to redemption or perhaps a farewell tour.

Here are seven Filipino athletes worth watching in Phnom Penh.


Kim Mangrobang (triathlon)

Mangrobang has been the queen of Southeast Asian triathlon ever since winning her first individual women's triathlon gold in Kuala Lumpur six years ago.

She has since won three straight golds in this event, and has an overall medal tally of five golds and one silver. She also ruled the duathlon in Hanoi two years ago.

A fourth straight triathlon gold will cement Mangrobang's status as one of the greatest Philippine athletes in SEA Games history. However, the 31-year-old will face perhaps her most formidable opponent yet in the form of Margot Garabedian, a French national who has been naturalized by hosts Cambodia.

EJ Obiena (pole vault)

Ranked no. 3 in the world and the Asian record holder, Obiena will be competing in his fifth SEA Games.

He's certainly come a long way from a fourth-place finish in the 2013 Myanmar Games and is now a heavy favorite for a third straight gold after ruling the Manila and Hanoi events in 2019 and 2021 respectively.

Obiena could have easily been gunning for a fourth straight title, but a torn ACL just a week before the 2017 Kuala Lumpur Games knocked him out of the competition.

Vanessa Sarno (weightlifting)

Nineteen-year-old Sarno has been carrying the tag of "the next Hidilyn Diaz" ever since she ruled the women's 71kg division of the 2021 Asian Championships when she was just 17.

She followed that up with her first SEA Games gold medal in Hanoi a year later and is favored to repeat in Phnom Penh.

Such a feat would make her one of the youngest Filipino athletes to win two SEAG gold medals and one of only a handful to win at least two before their 20th birthday.

Carlos Yulo (gymnastics)

Speaking of Philippine athletes who won at least two SEA Games golds before turning 20, Yulo also achieved the feat at the 2019 Manila Games.

Two years later in Hanoi, he shredded the opposition and bagged five golds.

His performance was so dominant that hosts Cambodia put a cap on the number of events he could join this year, limiting his participation to just four events. The 23-year-old suffered an ankle injury some weeks back, but should be good to go when competition begins.


John Marvin (boxing)

Marvin burst upon the SEA Games boxing scene in stunning fashion in Kuala Lumpur in 2017, knocking out his Malaysian opponent after just 21 seconds of their light-heavyweight gold medal match.

He won a silver at the 2019 Asian Championship in the same weight category and looked primed to repeat as SEA Games champion. Unfortunately, he suffered a shock quarterfinal defeat in the 2019 Manila Games and missed the podium. The Philippines did not field an entry in the men's 81kg division at the 2021 Hanoi Games, denying Marvin a chance for redemption.

The 30-year-old, who has since turned pro and picked up two wins, will finally get that chance in Phnom Penh.

Aries Toledo (decathlon)

Toledo won golds in 2017 and 2019, and under any other circumstances should have scored a three-peat in 2021 after he posted a personal best of 7,469 points in Hanoi.

As fate would have it, his personal best was good only for a silver medal after he was dethroned by Thailand's Suttisak Singkhon, who bagged the gold with 7,603 points.

Toledo, though, could face an uphill battle in his quest for redemption as he has reportedly been battling a hamstring injury since early this year.


Efren Reyes (billiard sports)

Bata. The Magician. Whatever you want to call him, Efren Reyes is already a legend not just in Philippine sports but in the SEA Games itself.

He only won a bronze in one-cushion carom singles two years ago in Hanoi but, everywhere he went, fans mobbed him and fellow competitors stopped him for a selfie. It figures to be more of the same for the 68-year-old legend when he gets to Phnom Penh, where he'll compete in three-cushion carom singles and try to win his first SEA Games gold in 24 years.

Not that his trophy case nor his legacy needs another gold medal; he's already won seven in a SEA Games career than began in 1987. But wouldn't it be nice.