Philippines mourns passing of ‘Asia’s sprint queen’

Jojo Riñoza
Philippines mourns passing of ‘Asia’s sprint queen’ In this file photo, Philippine sprint queen Lydia De Vega smiles as she leads the pack during a race at the 1991 Southeast Asian Games in Manila.
Courtesy Ernie Sarmiento

Lydia De Vega, a runner touted as Asia’s fastest woman in the 1980s and who was one of the Philippines’ most celebrated athletes, lost a four-year battle with breast cancer at age 57, her family announced. 

Stephanie Mercado de Koenigswarter, De Vega’s daughter, announced her death via a post on Facebook late Wednesday. 

“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 said. “She fought the very good fight and is now at peace.” 

Mercado de Koenigswarter, a volleyball star in the Philippines is the daughter of De Vega and her husband, Paul Mercado. 

De Vega, a two-time Olympian, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2018. Her family recently asked the public for help in sustaining her treatments.

Born on Dec. 26, 1964, in Meycauayan city, Bulacan  province, De Vega was the daughter of a police officer who oversaw her training and pushed her to excel. 

Throughout her career in the 1980s and early ’90s, De Vega won 15 gold medals, including the 100-meter race in the 1982 and 1986 Asian Games and the 100- and 200-meter sprint double in the Asian Athletics Championship in 1983 and 1987.

She won a total of nine golds and a silver in the 100- and 200-meter races, along with the 400-meter and the long jump in five Southeast Asian Games.

Stephanie Mercado de Koenigswarter posted this tribute to her mother. [Stephanie Mercado de Koenigswarter/Facebook]

De Vega turned pro at 18 and became the most popular Filipino athlete during her time, long before boxing legend Manny Pacquiao rose to fame. 

With her good looks, the track superstar captured the hearts of legions of fans in an impoverished nation struggling with martial law under the rule of longtime dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos. Marcos fled the country in 1986 after being chased out by a “people power” revolt that restored democracy.

On Thursday, Marcos’ son, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., paid tribute to De Vega, saying the Philippines mourned the loss of the “sprint queen.”

“My sincerest condolences to her family and loved ones,” the president said. “Lydia was once touted as the fastest woman in Asia and she placed the Philippines in the map of international athletics."

De Vega, he said, had “run her last race.” 

“She has finished her contest. She has fought a good fight. Let us pray for her peace,” Marcos said.

De Vega retired in 1994 and traded public life for a quieter existence in Singapore, where she helped children and people with disabilities. In 2019, De Vega carried the Philippine flag during SEA Games, her last public appearance.

Renowned Filipino photographer Ernie Sarmiento, who took photos of De Vega in the heat of competition (such as in the main photo for this story), said she was “always the darling of the press.”

“Not only because she’s Asia’s sprint queen but because of her beauty inside and out,” he said in a Facebook post.


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