MANILA, 1 November — That sweet smile, the golden twinkle in her eyes and the down-to-earth character have long earned equestrienne Mikee Cojuangco-Jaworski tons of adulation from those who know her by heart.
After her gold-medal performance in the Busan Asian Games, she won the hearts of millions of Filipinos.
After all, Mikee — who signs her name with a sketch of a happy horse — was the last pretty woman standing in Busan.
So from now on, Mikee will not only be remembered as a Cojuangco or a Jaworski or a pretty actress, but also an Asian Games gold medalist and a true Filipino champion.
The sweet lady with a sweet smile and an obedient horse won the country’s third and last gold on the very last day of the regional competition, giving the Philippines their best finish in 16 years on overall medal count.
With Mikee’s scintillating triumph, the Filipinos surpassed their three-gold, two-silver, eight-bronze showing in Hiroshima in 1994 with a 3-7-16 output now.
A true champion, the pretty, steel-nerved 28-year-old Mikee rode flawlessly aboard a horse she almost left behind and won the individual show jumping gold. She upset some of the world’s finest riders while turning the Busan Equestrian Grounds into a field of dreams and blessing the departing Filipino delegation with glorious reason to celebrate.
It gave a late wave of euphoria back home that somehow wiped away tears from her countrymen after the national basketball team failed to bring home the medal that mattered most.
“Maybe it’s just the timing,” said Mikee when asked if she considered herself as the country’s saving grace. “But the other athletes also put the same amount of time and effort into all the contributions they made for our bid.”
Still, for Mikee, the Asiad gold is the biggest and most satisfying of all since she began riding 18 years ago.
Even she couldn’t believe that she had won the gold although she was seen celebrating throwing her left hand into the air and flashing her bedimpled smile the moment she cleared the white obstacle for the final jump in Busan.
“This is for my countrymen and for my husband, Dudut, and my children,” said Mikee. “I can’t believe it, especially since nobody thought our team was capable of winning medals here.’
Dudut, the eldest son of basketball legend and now Sen. Robert Jaworski, could not have asked for a more memorable gift when he turned 31 on the day of Mikee’s victory.
Mikee faced a course toughened further for the event and a shortened time limit, but she handled Rustic Rouge, an eight-year-old Australian thoroughbred mare she picked over Luisita, her horse in the 1998 Bangkok Asiad, expertly through the obstacles.
She rode the ride of her life in the deciding jumpoff point against her Korean opponent, and triumphed in the centerpiece event of the three-day equestrian action.
Such accomplishment though is more impressive with the fact that Mikee is already a mother of two, giving birth to her second child only last December. Rafael is now 10 months old, and growing up to be a truly smart, healthy, and fit child.
Mikee is also a pro-active mom who is able to balance her time between taking care of her kids, and accomplishing an impressive career as an equestrienne.
She has been riding since she was 10 at their hacienda in Tarlac, and had a string of victories abroad, including one last year in New Delhi. But she took time off from showjumping when she gave birth to her second child.
After giving birth to her second child, Mikee left her husband and her two young sons as early as Sept. 18 (the showjumping was scheduled yet only on Oct. 11) to begin her preparation for this Asiad.
She trained and competed in Australia in March and April, and trained against in Malaysia from July to September.
Mikee’s gold was the first-ever Asiad medal for the Philippines in showjumping, a difficult two-round equestrian team event.
At the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, the Philippines bagged their first and only equestrian medal, a bronze, in dressage through the efforts of Steven and Mariella Virata, Fedilino Barba, and Jose Montilla until Busan came along.
Mikee competed in her third straight Asian Games but Busan had to be the sweetest tour of duty.
The Ateneo psychology graduate hadn’t won a medal previously.
A former TV and movie star, she retired to keep house for husband Dodot Jaworski and their two kids until deciding to go for another crack at an Asiad medal.
In 1998, Mikee collected golds in both team and individual competitions at the World Cup qualifiers and the Nations Cup in Kuala Lumpur so she’s no stranger to victory.
Former Tarlac Rep. Jose “Peping” Cojuangco, Mikee’s father, said: “Horse riding has always been her (Mikee) love. At age 12, I tried without success to veer her attention away from equestrian and brought her to bowling alleys and golf courses. But she still chose equestrian.”
Peping, now the RP equestrian president, said Mikee had more sacrifices than “real joy” pursuing her equestrian career.
“Not many know it but Mikee and her fellow equestrian lovers bathe their own horses, walk them around in the sun to dry them up, brush their skin and hair. They join their horses during truck-rides, where they usually fall asleep due to exhaustion. And they talk a lot to their horses, otherwise, there would be a communication gap.”
Actually, the equestrian team was not supposed to be in Busan since they had no performance records to justify their participation in the Asiad.
But they insisted on being given a chance even if they had to pay their way.
“Only Leviste (Tony) had met our criteria and the participation of an equestrian team was not considered at first since we had no way of knowing whether the rest of the members have the credentials for the event,” said RP Chef de Mission Tom Carrasco.
But the Philippine Equestrian Federation, headed by Mikeeís father, offered to shoulder the high cost of fielding a showjumping team and the Philippine Olympic Committee finally relented.
Mikee, who’s now all set to take a long rest ‘because I miss my family so much,’ has just enriched herself with 1.5 million pesos in incentives, including 500,000 pesos from RP team sponsor Samsung. She also has a share in the 750,000 pesos prize the team is getting for its silver.
Mikee’s niece, Danielle Cojuangco, landed eighth, while Olympian Toni Leviste decided to back out after incurring 13 penalty points in the morning round.
The quartet of Mikee, Danielle, Toni and Michelle Barrera also won the silver in team show jumping.
Accompanied by her groom and coach Vicki Roycroft of Australia, Mikee, holding an RP flaglet, drew a loud cheer when she approached the victory podium teary eyed but extremely happy.
She waved to the crowd after the awarding of medals and the Philippine flag was raised and then returned to her horse for a victory ride while carrying the RP tricolor.
“I’m so happy because Mikee’s victory is good for the sport. Now, people will realize that Filipinos have a chance to excel in equestrian, although people hardly paid attention to us before we competed here,” said Leviste.
Meanwhile, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, gladdened by Mikee’s gold medal victory, has ordered the allotment of two hectares of land at Fort Bonifacio for the construction of an ultra-modern equestrian grounds — the first in the country.
Peping said he was very happy that the president acted swiftly as regards to the immediate need to put up the country’s first equestrian track/grounds at Ft. Bonifacio in accordance with international standards.
“Many kids in the country have suddenly come to me expressing their desire to pursue their equestrian dreams and follow in the footsteps of Mikee,” said Peping, who has been president of the Philippine Equestrian Federation for nearly three years now as Tony Boy Cojuangco’s successor.
The former cage great and now Senator Jaworski said the Asiad triumph of his daughter-in-law, Mikee, is all about “heart.”
“It’s all heart. Maybe she got some from me,” said Jaworski.
Jaworski became the country’s most popular cager mainly because of his never-say-die attitude.