Sprint Queen reaches finish line

Lydia de Vega-Mercado – one of the greatest Filipino athletes of all time – succumbed to cancer. She was 57.

No less than her daughter, Stephanie, broke the news on social media, saying that her mother had perished after losing her long battle with breast cancer at the Makati Medical Center.

De Vega-Mercado was first diagnosed with cancer in 2018 and had been quietly fighting the disease for the past four years in which she underwent several procedures, including brain surgery.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. spearheaded the fund-raising campaign when he instructed Philippine Sports Commission executive director Atty. Guillermo Iroy to dole out a significant amount that would help cover her rising medical expenses.

Still, on a quiet Wednesday evening, Asia’s Sprint Queen had reached the finish line.

“On behalf of our family, it is with absolute grief that I announce the death of my mother, Lydia de Vega this evening, August 10, 2022, at the Makati Medical Center. She fought a very good fight and she is now at peace,” said Stephanie, who inherited her mother’s athletic ability after playing for De La Salle University women’s volleyball team.

“Wake details will be announced very soon but for now, I would wholeheartedly appreciate your prayers for the soul of my mother.”

Fondly called ‘Diay’ by friends and fans, the tall, bubbly and very comely daughter of Meycauayan, Bulacan served as face of Philippine sports in the 1980s and 1990s.

She was just 16 years old when she became a product of Project: Gintong Alay program in 1979 under Michael Keon that aims to develop potential track and field athletes. Her first coach was her father Francisco “Tatang” de Vega, an ex-policeman who also served as her PR man, masseuse, therapist and sports psychologist.

Later on, former Olympians Claro Pellosis and Santos Magno as well as Australian Anthony Benson joined her team, making her one of the most powerful forces in Philippine athletics.

She burst into the limelight when she dazzled the home crowd with her extraordinary display of flair, speed and beauty en route to a commanding 23.54 seconds in the women’s 200-meter run and 54.75 seconds in the women’s 400-meter run in the 1981 Southeast Asian Games at the Rizal Memorial track oval.

But her biggest break came the following year.

Ranged against an equally beloved sprinter in PT Usha of India, de Vega-Mercado exploded with a record-breaking 11.76 seconds to emerge victorious in their duel of grit, poise, power and speed in the women’s 100-meter run event of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi.

More than clinching the gold medal, de Vega-Mercado’s star power shine even brighter as she was tagged as “Asia’s Sprint Queen,” a title previously reserved for legendary Taiwanese trackster Chi Cheng back in the day.

She proved that her feat was no fluke in the next edition of the Asian Games in Seoul in 1986 when she clocked an incredible 11.53 seconds en route to another golden finish.

De Vega-Mercado would later clock 11.28 seconds in the women’s 100-meter run – a record that remained untouched for 30 years until a Filipino-American runner in Kristina Knott shattered it with an 11.26-second performance in a tournament in the United States.

Even her personal life failed to stop her from achieving athletic excellence.

Two years after dominating the women’s 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump events of the 1987 SEA Games in Jakarta, de Vega-Mercado announced her retirement to attend to her personal life.

She went back to school to finish her Physical Education degree at Far Eastern University and started her own family with Paulo Mercado, a Meralco engineer.

But she was far from done.

After taking a two-year hiatus, de Vega-Mercado announced her return with a bang as a massive hometown crowd serenaded her with cheers and chants in the finals of the women’s 100-meter run at the Rizal Memorial track oval during the 1991 SEA Games in Manila.

In fact, as de Vega-Mercado settled into her starting blocks, Filipino fans went crazy, screaming her name in ferocious harmony as if she’s a returning war hero.

In his book “Golden Moments of the SEA Games, 1959-1991,” author Percy Seneviratne quoted a Filipino journalist who witnessed the breathtaking event that further cemented de Vega-Mercado’s spot in the pedestal of sports greatness.

“If Lydia doesn’t win, there’s going to be a riot here,” Seneviratne said in her book.

But de Vega-Mercado made sure that there would be no violence.

She went on a rampage when she surged past the early pacesetters – compatriot Elma Muros and G Shanti of Malaysia in the final 60-meter mark.

The Malaysian, who had beaten de Vega-Mercado in the 1991 Asian Athletics Championships just the previous month, failed to make a late rally as she flung herself at the tape in sheer desperation to settle for the silver medal in 11.63 seconds.

De Vega-Mercado, of course, clinched the gold in 11.44 seconds with Muros picking up the bronze.

“I had no doubt that I would win it. I gave it 101 percent effort,” de Vega-Mercado later said.

“A lot of people had underestimated me. Now they know who I am and what I can do. The victory is for the Filipino people and my family.”

All in all, de Vega-Mercado captured nine gold and two silver medals in the SEA Games; four gold, three silver and three bronze medals in the Asian Athletics Championships; and two gold and a silver medal in the Asian Games in a legendary track career that spans for 14 years.

She also saw action in two Olympic Games – 1982 in Los Angeles and 1988 in Seoul – and delivered countless memories, including the joy of winning and the pain of losing.

She served as councilor of Meycauayan and consultant of the PSC after her playing career before quietly moving to Singapore to answer a different calling: Teaching.

She was at the sidelines of the 28th SEA Games in Singapore in 2015 and was seen cheering as sprinters Eric Cray and Kayla Richardson put on a show to rule the century dash, which is long considered as the most prestigious and most important event in track and field.

“The talent is there and we have the potential to do better,” de Vega-Mercado told Daily Tribune at the grandstands of the Singapore National Stadium.

“Don’t worry, they’ll improve along the way. The future of (Philippine) athletics looks bright.”

Four years later, she made another public appearance, this time, with her fellow legends during the opening ceremonies of the 30th SEA Games in 2019.

One of the athletes whom she was with was Eric Buhain, who claimed that de Vega-Mercado was in her usual jolly self with her megawatt smile still lighting up the room.

“I was so shocked because when we were together during the SEA Games in 2019 in Philippine Arena, she was already diagnosed with cancer,” said Buhain, who was with de Vega-Mercado in the national team from 1985 to 1993.

“But she tried her best to hide it. She showed tremendous courage to hide the pain and act as if everything was going well.”

Buhain said de Vega-Mercado – his friend – may now be gone, but her memories will last forever.

After all, legends never die.

They just fade away.

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