April 14, 2024

Filipinas star Sarina Bolden should be everyone's Athlete of the Year—end of discussion

Filipinas star Sarina Bolden should be everyone
Art by Royce Nicdao

Once in a while, a generational talent falls through the cracks—like the cosmos’ gift to a yearning sports world—for everyone to marvel at. A super athlete with the ideal equilibrium of kinetic genius, balletic grace, and charismatic zeal. A mythical specimen. A prodigious rarity. 

Sarina Bolden isn’t that. 

She’s tall. But that’s about it. At the risk of sounding prejudicial, she looks like a typical half-blooded Filipino. Like that cousin from the United States that you barely knew. Her physique isn’t perfect. She’s not extremely fast. She’s not ultra-athletic. While she’s certainly terrific at football, many others can equal her abilities. She's not one of a kind. She’s not exactly someone you would use superlatives for.  

Except maybe this: And that’s exactly why she’s great. 

Her excellence, which is usually a provenance of a select few, lies not exclusively in her talent on the pitch. It's also in the comfortable familiarity about her. There have been many examples before her—you know the type—those athletes who look just like everyone else but can turn on the switch and shockingly perform like no other. Well, she's the latest one.  

It's a familiar rhetoric: Hey, if she can do it, I can do it too! That's how Bolden, pardon the cheesy pun, emboldens. 

The majority would point to Gilas Pilipinas’ gold medal conquest in the Asian Games as the best local sports moment this year—and for good reason. It broke a six-decade dry spell. The country’s hosting of the FIBA World Cup is also a top candidate. It was hailed globally, after all. 

But this time—maybe just this once—basketball should take a backseat to football. Read that again slowly to let it sink in: Basketball. Should. Take. A. Backseat. To. Football. Normally, that would be sacrilegious. But with the way the Filipinas showed out and continued to break the glass ceiling this year—with Bolden brandishing the hammer—2023 was truly the Year of the Beautiful Game in the Philippines. 

ALSO READ: There's no reason not to strongly root for the Filipinas—even if you don't watch football

The Filipinas’ stint in the FIFA Women’s World Cup was the—this time, superlatives must be used—biggest, greatest, and most significant local sports moment of the year. It had no precedent. In any gender. In any age level. Even history had to rub its eyes and take a double look. The Philippines in the FIFA World Cup? The biggest sporting event in the universe? How? Why? Well, sometimes, beautiful things don't need to be explained.

Fans were content with just seeing the Filipinas play in the FIFA Women's World Cup. Sapat na 'yung kilig. But Bolden probably said: "F*** that! Let’s get a win!" Against a higher-ranked New Zealand, in front of a hostile capacity crowd, Bolden, in her dalliance with destiny, found the back of the net in the 24th minute with a well-placed header that eventually proved to be the game-winner. Disbelief. Pandemonium. History. Not necessarily in that order. 

You know that stylistic scene in movies when every sound gets muted except for the breathing of the main character during a climactic moment? That’s probably what happened to Bolden when she boisterously ran toward the bench with electricity coursing through her anatomy. In that golden moment, she rallied an entire nation for a modus vivendi with fate. Considering the toxic divisiveness that has torn the Philippines apart in recent years, it wasn't an easy thing to do. But through sheer will, Bolden and the Filipinas did it. And they're far from being done.

“I hope that moving forward, we’re able to keep this sustainable and to keep this team growing and learning, and be proud of the growth that we had in such a short amount of time. Not many teams have done what we’ve done. I’m excited about where we’ll continue to go,” said Bolden after the tournament. 

ALSO READ: Of course, it's her: Sarina Bolden stays golden in latest heroic act for Filipinas

It’s hard to overstate how massive the milestone was. Maybe consider this: If it was Gilas Pilipinas that made its debut in this year's FIBA World Cup and notched a historic win, the internet would explode, the team would be immortalized with a statue, and one of the players could, in the future, between-the-legs dribble his way to Malacañang. 

Also this: Bolden is arguably the most irreplaceable athlete in all of the country's national teams. Jordan Clarkson is not available? Call Justin Brownlee. No Alyssa Valdez? A bunch of other spikers can score. Neil Etheridge can't play? Patrick Deyto can fill in. The Filipinas without Bolden? Good luck with that. 

She scored 12 goals for the Filipinas this year to hike up her total to 28—the most by any player—including a walk-off winner against Malaysia in the Southeast Asian Games, one in each of their four matches in their maiden stint in the Asian Games, and five in their impressive run in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament

To be clear, this is not about pitting football against basketball. Or denigrating Bolden's teammates (all of the Filipinas are national treasures) and other national athletes (Brownlee was all sorts of spectacular in the Asian Games). It’s about acknowledging, respecting, and championing someone who deserves more attention. Because frankly, we're not giving her enough.

Despite that, the 27-year-old striker has handled herself with grace, class, and modesty. With a disarming smile to boot. She has no controversies. She doesn't throw her teammates under the bus. She doesn't publicly blast her coach. She doesn't excessively flex. She could've easily celebrated herself on social media after her goal in the FIFA Women's World Cup—she should've, really—but she didn't. Instead, this is what she wrote on Instagram when the tournament was over: "Salamat po for this breathtaking experience. I hope we made the country and the people proud, this is only the beginning."

She's always about the "we." The need to constantly improve, the value of representing a nation, and the responsibility to inspire are precepts already so seared into Bolden, it feels like a disservice to still mention them. 

She's also generous with her time with fans, regularly attending public engagements of the Filipinas even when she could easily just rest. She's simply an all-around positive vibe. As she wrote on her bio on Instagram: “i just wanna have fun an b gay."

But that doesn't mean she's not vocal about important things. She has repeatedly called on the country to support football. She has urged those in power to invest more in the Filipinas, who in the past had to resort to borrowed equipment and hand-me-down cleats. The Filipinas have been criticized for having a roster filled with half-foreigners. Bolden, who grew up in California, has repeatedly dismissed the notion that they're not genuinely Filipino. Then there's her sexual orientation, which is as much a part of her as air to a football.

“Being this Asian, African-American, queer woman, that’s like, pick one! (Society will tell you that) you can’t be all three!" said Bolden in an interview with Vogue Magazine last September. "I know I have a responsibility to keep going because there weren’t many footballers who looked like me playing out there.” 

“I love this sport because it’s given me so much. It doesn’t matter what your background is. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is. If this is what you want, this is the sport that will accept you with open arms," added the Newcastle Jets hotshot.

While women’s sports grew in leaps and bounds this year, there are still creases in the fabric, especially in the Philippines, where misogyny and narrow-mindedness still need to be unlearned by many. 

No one fascinated by watching the beautiful game feels cheated when Bolden plays. She plays the right way. Even when down by a large deficit, she still performs to the hilt. And while she's not a superhero, she possesses a certain power: You always feel that there's a chance to win when Bolden is around. Once she is within the periphery of the goal and her feet are shuffling, with the football bouncing in between them like a pinball machine, the opposing goalkeeper can only pray to every deity that Bolden doesn't score.

ALSO READ: Don't stop believing: Filipinas have come so far but they still have further to go

Every year, the Philippine Sportswriters Association hands out the Athlete of the Year trophy. First instituted in 1976, it is the highest individual athletic distinction in the country. No football player has won it. Perhaps that should change this year. The Filipinas may not have won a tournament, but Bolden's body of work this year trumps everyone else's. She may not be the popular choice but she is the right choice. 

On second thought, forget everything stated here in the beginning. Maybe she's one of a kind, after all.