Visibly delighted by the warm reception, Olympic medalist Kayla Noelle Sanchez announced her promise to swim for the Philippines over a year ago.
That commitment will be on display in plain sight once the pool races of the 19th Asian Games start in Hangzhou, China in less than a week.
Sanchez switched nationalities after boosting Canada’s stock in aquatics by helping the latter take two medals in the women’s relay – silver in the 4x100m freestyle and bronze in the 4x100m medley – at the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
But who is Sanchez really and what are the assets she could bring to the national swimming team?
Born to Filipino migrants Noel of Mabalacat, Pampanga and Susana, 22-year-old Sanchez, who traces her roots to Baguio, became a steady source of medals for Team Canada in international competitions before switching her allegiance back to her parents’ motherland .
She began carrying the Canadian flag at major overseas tournaments at the 2017 World Junior Swimming Championships in Indianapolis, where Sanchez fished silver in the 200-meter individual medley and bronze in the 100-meter freestyle.
Kayla was also instrumental in capturing the gold medals in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle and the 4x100m individual medley in the same event where the team reset the junior world standard and championship record.
The same year, Sanchez was elevated to the senior ranks and saw action at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships in Budapest, Hungary. She was part of the team that finished fourth in the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Sanchez went on to become a mainstay of Canada’s elite aquatics team, representing the country at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the 2019 World Swimming Championships in Gwangju. Her team took bronze in the 4x100m and 4x200m freestyle relays in the South Korea world championships.
With an impressive track record, Sanchez was brought in to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics and won silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay alongside Penny Oleksiak, Rebecca Smith and Maggie Mac Neil.
The quartet added a bronze medal for Canada in the 4x100m medley relay, with Sanchez helping the team finish at the top of the heats, but was replaced by Oleksiak later in the final.
Sanchez recorded an individual personal best of 53.12 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle heats to qualify for the semifinals at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, but withdrew in an attempt to conserve energy in fourth place in the 4×200 meter freestyle relay.
Still going strong after the Olympics, Sanchez played a crucial role in the three gold medals and silver the relay team won at the 2021 FINA World Swimming Championships in Abu Dhabi.
Sanchez and her teammates were later blessed with another silver performance in the 4×100 freestyle relay and two bronzes at the 2022 World Swimming Championships from June 17 to July 3.
Three weeks later, Philippine swimming announced Sanchez’s desire to represent Team Philippines in major foreign tournaments, thanks to the efforts of former swimming head Lailani Velasco.
World Aquatics gave Sanchez the green light to compete for the Philippines starting July 6, 2023 with the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, her coming-out party.
Sanchez will compete in the women’s 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle, as well as the 100-meter backstroke, events where she could end the national swimming team’s medal drought in Asia.
No Philippine tanker has entered the medal platform of the Asian Games since Raymond Papa’s bronze medal in the men’s 100 meters and 200 meters backstroke at the 1998 edition in Bangkok, Thailand.
The gold medal in Asia has also become a rare commodity since William Wilson’s victory in the men’s 200m freestyle in 1982 in New Delhi, India. Wilson also captured silver in the 400-meter freestyle.
Sánchez can boast of the bells that could end the wait of more than forty years.
Her personal best of 53.12 seconds in the 100m free is faster than the previous Asian Games gold medalist, Rikako Ikee of Japan (53.27), while she is just a blink slower than Ikee’s gold record of 24.53 seconds at the Asian Games in the 50 meter free time with her clocking 24.68.
In the 100m backstroke, Sanchez’s 59.78 is faster than Asian Games bronze medalist Chen Jie of China (1:00.28).
She will use the Asian Games as a springboard to achieve qualifying times for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where Sánchez promises to complete an individual medal finish.