Aira Villegas Punches Her Way to the Paris Olympics
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Aira Villegas Punches Her Way to the Paris Olympics: “My Time Will Come”

BITAGCOL top and trousers. Photographed by Mark Nicdao for the July 2024 Issue of Vogue Philippines.

In and beyond the ring, Aira Villegas banks on her patience and faith in divine timing. Her Olympic berth begins with a sharpening of the mind and a deliberate care for the spirit.

Aira Villegas is in her own world. She enters the studio with one hand in her pocket, the other flitting through playlists as music echoes beyond her earphones. The Olympic boxer sports a self-made cut on her left eyebrow and a swagger in her step. She looks tough, and she is, having just punched her way to a Paris berth with a 5-0 win at the 1st World Qualification Tournament in Italy last March. But sit her down and you’ll find a playfulness in her spirit, a trait central to her love for the sport.

Villegas started boxing at age nine, when her older brother would train her just for fun. “Nasobrahan ata ako sa fun,” she quips fondly. “Kinareer ko na. [I had so much fun, it became my career.]” Driven by a desire to provide for her parents and to bring home medals like her brothers, Villegas made the big move from Tacloban to Manila to pursue the sport professionally.

Her carefree spirit she attributes to her parents, who she says had always been the first to encourage her to seek adventure and find her passion. Today, they remain her biggest motivations. “It’s a different feeling when you’re the one providing for your parents because, all your life, you’re the one being provided for,” she explains in Filipino. “Until now, I tell God, please give my parents a long life so they can experience whatever they haven’t yet. I want to give back, to spoil my parents like that.”

The journey hasn’t all been fun and games. But in between serious injuries and bouts of self-doubt, her secret to resilience is patience and a trust in divine timing. Funnily enough, her Olympic-qualifying win was against an opponent she had just lost to the year before, a season that ultimately catapulted her into discovering the balance and focus she now holds. “This is my comeback,” she smiles. “Many people think that being an athlete is all about physical fitness. But no! You have to be emotionally and mentally fit, too,” she says in Filipino. 

After over a decade of being in the national team, Villegas has learned to take everything one day and one step at a time. Before matches, she’s made it a point to relieve herself of pressure—a practice that is universally easier said than done. “Lagi ko tinatanda, nandoon yung pressure. Pero yung pressure, walang magagawa. Ikaw pa rin yung magdidikta ng magiging laro mo mo. [There will always be pressure. But the pressure won’t do anything. You are still the one in control of your game.]”

In preparation for her Olympic debut, Villegas draws strength and solace from her family, her psychologist, and her grand collection of self-help books. The biggest lesson she’s learned in the past 12 years? “I don’t need anyone else’s approval but my own.”

This month, Vogue Philippines pays tribute to stories of grit, determination, and the pursuit of excellence. Below, meet more of the athletes who continue to shatter the glass ceiling of sports.

CHAMPIONS: OLYMPIANS, SPORTSMEN, AND WOMEN

Vogue Philippines: July 2024 Issue

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By BIANCA CUSTODIO, NANA CARAGAY, PATRICIA VILLORIA Photographs by MARK NICDAO Beauty Editor JOYCE OREÑA Fashion Director PAM QUIÑONES. Stylists: David Milan, Steven Coralde of Qurator Studio. Makeup: Angeline dela Cruz, Bea Mocorro, Janica Cleto, and Japeth Purog of Estée Lauder Philippines, Nadynne Esguerra. Hair: JA Feliciano and Kyle Velasco, Jessica Riva and Noel Muncada of Toni&Guy Philippines, Mong Amado. Art Director: Jann Pascua. Producer: Anz Hizon. Bookings Associate: Bianca Zaragoza. Beauty Writer: Bianca Custodio. Nails: Extraordinail. Photographer’s Assistants: Arsan Sulser Hofileña, Crisaldo Soco, John Phillip Nicdao, Villie James Bautista. Stylist’s Assistants: Geno Karlo, Kyla Uy, Ticia Almazan. Shot on location at Balay Kobo and Vogue Studios.
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