Emma Malabuyo just made her debut in Philippine gymnastics, but she tells The GAME she is already looking forward to more opportunities to bring glory to her country.
If you tuned into the 2023 Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships, a new name under the Philippine flag might have caught your attention.
Filipino gymnast Emma Malabuyo made her debut for the Philippines in the recent Asian Championships and she hit the ground running, already solidifying her name as one to remember with a silver-medal finish in the women’s floor exercise event. She was one of only three Filipino medalists at the tournament.
“Competing for the Philippines was pure joy,” Emma told The GAME, reflecting on her performance. “I was just so proud and so happy… This means so much to our country.”
Having grown up in the United States, it was a debut Emma will always remember, not only because of her success, but also because of her newfound connection to the Philippines.
Making the switch
Although both her parents are Filipino, Emma Malabuyo was born and raised in the United States. She started competitive gymnastics when she was only eight years old, and by the time she was 13, she was already competing for the United States. Through the years, she remained dedicated to her craft, continuously competing and developing as an athlete.
In 2021, Emma was a standout among all the young gymnasts in the country, and she proved this at the US Olympic Team Trials, where she finished in ninth place and earned a spot for Tokyo 2020 as an alternate.
On top of this, she also competes for the UCLA women’s gymnastics team, where she has been dedicating most of her competitive energy over the last two years.
But, when the opportunity to represent the Philippines came along after her last college competition of the season, Emma grabbed it.
It was Cliff Parks, who works with the Philippine National Gymnastics Team, who approached Emma with the opportunity to represent the Philippines in the Asian Championships. But, there was a catch — when he came to her, there was only a month left until the tournament.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s coming up so quickly. I have to make this decision and then I’d have to start preparing and training for all of this,'” she shared.
Without the luxury of time, Emma had a big decision to make, knowing that representing the Philippines would also mean hanging up her career for the United States. But in the end, she decided to commit — she was going to represent the Philippines for the rest of her athletic career.
Not an easy decision to make, and on top of this, having to secure all the necessary documents for her eligibility to compete, the one month leading up to the Asian Championships was a whirlwind for Emma.
Starting a new chapter
Having spent her entire life in the United States, competing with the Philippine National Team was surely going to be an adjustment for Emma Malabuyo. But, she expressed that it was the team who made the adjustment easier.
“I think what just really motivated me was just the team atmosphere, the culture of the women’s team, and the men’s team, the Filipino coaches, the staff, and the judges — they all made me feel very welcome. And so I think that’s kind of what helped me with the whole thing,” she said.
Having met a lot of the other Filipino gymnasts for the first time in Singapore, Emma shared that she really developed a bond with the team, even outside of the training and competition setting. In fact, the younger members of the team even started to call her, ate, a term lovingly used to refer to one’s older sister.
Developing this bond and closeness made competing just that much sweeter, as it also deepened her connection to her Filipino roots.
So when the time came to compete, Emma dazzled the competition with her floor exercise routine that earned her a score of 13.166 to finish with a silver medal.
“Honestly, I was not expecting anything at all,” Emma admitted, given that the Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships marked her return to elite gymnastics. “I thought, ‘Okay, let’s just see where I’m at.’ I had no expectations, but then after I won that medal, I was just so proud and happy.
“I think the thing that made me most proud was everyone giving me a hug and telling me, ‘This means so much to our country.’ I was speechless after I won and so thankful for all the love and support I got from everybody.”
Connected to her roots
With a talent like Emma, the Philippines will certainly be proud to call her one of its own. And while a win on the international stage means so much to the country, to her teammates, and to herself, it also means a great deal to her family.
“They were so proud of me, and they’ve been so supportive too,” she said. “Just seeing me represent their country — it was this amazing feeling, feeling all the love.”
Despite growing up in the United States, Emma proudly shared that she has always had a connection to her Filipino roots and to Filipino culture, emphasizing the close bond that her family shares, and her closeness with her grandparents who were born in the Philippines.
Living in California as well has also given her the opportunity to learn about the culture, even while far from the country, given the big Filipino community in the state. She shared that she knows many other Filipino students at UCLA and that she also took a Filipino class offered by the university.
While she admits that she is still learning more of the language, even getting help from her new teammates, there will be boundless opportunities for her to continue to deepen her sense of nationality now that she represents the Philippines.
“I’ve had this sense of culture with me throughout my whole life, but now representing the Philippines, it’s made it even stronger.”
The first of many
Just about to head into her third year of college at UCLA, Emma Malabuyo is far from finished as an athlete. And, she is ready to reach for even more opportunities to compete for the Philippines.
Getting to compete in the recent Asian Championships was something that really fueled Emma, as it was her first major competition back in elite gymnastics. “There was some sort of challenge figuring out elite again and competing with the best in the world, but it also sparked a fire in me, and I want to upgrade and do more.”
Emma will be bringing this newly lit fire within her as she prepares for her next performance representing the Philippines in the Asian Games in September.
But the Asian Artistic Gymnastics Championships and the upcoming Asian Games are still simply stepping stones for Emma’s bigger goals in her career.
“My main goal is to hopefully compete in the Olympics one day,” she said. “I made it to the Olympics last time, but I haven’t been able to compete. Competing, especially for the Philippines, would mean the world to me, and it’d be a great experience and opportunity to do that.”
Now competing on a new stage and for a new flag, Emma is certainly in for a journey as she works towards her Olympic dream. But along the way, she will not only be performing for medals and titles, but also for all the dreamers who are just like her.
“I want to be able to connect with others and bring some sort of joy and happiness to the sport and show everybody that they can enjoy the sport too… I want to encourage others, especially younger Filipinos just like me that they can do it too.”
Images from Emma Malabuyo on Instagram.