<
>

Ian Lariba was the most promising Filipino talent in recent memory

As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.

We honor the athletes who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. Gone too soon but never forgotten, Ian Lariba was better at table tennis than most Filipino athletes were at anything else during the 2010s. She was so good that literally no one could beat her in elimination round singles matches during her stint with DLSU. She was so good, she became the first Filipino to qualify for the table tennis competition of the Olympic Games.

Despite leaving this world at just 23 years of age, Ian Lariba made sure that her handiwork would be appreciated by the Philippine sporting community for a very long time.

Lariba's accomplishments were legendary, starting from her playing days for the De La Salle University Lady Paddlers. She then rode on her meteoric rise to stardom with a stint in the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming the very first Filipino athlete from the sport to do so.

However, her untimely death in 2018 after an almost two-year battle with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) prevented the young prodigy from showing her talents more on the world stage.

From a very young age, Lariba found interest in the sport while she was growing up in her hometown of Cagayan de Oro.

There, Lariba learned the game, and eventually became a student-athlete for Corpus Christi School, where she represented her school and country in competitions locally and abroad as a member of the Philippine women's national table tennis team.

She was then recruited by De La Salle, where Lariba would become a legend.

"Dominance" was the best word to describe her stint for the Lady Paddlers. For five years, she faced the UAAP's best, racking up every award that a player could imagine.

Lariba would close out her career with a total of three titles, three MVPs, two Athlete of the Year plums, and an undefeated record in the elimination rounds.

In her freshman year in Season 74, she won Rookie of the Year honors. Lariba then leveled up her play by taking home the first of three Most Valuable Player awards and more importantly, a championship for the Green and White in Season 75.

"When I was awarded MVP, that was just a bonus since I appreciated more my first championship in my career," recollected Lariba in a previous interview with DLSU Sports.

The following year, now a team captain in just her third season, Lariba would lead her team to a flawless record once more, earning an automatic Finals berth, and a much-needed thrice-to-beat advantage in the UAAP Season 76 finals against the UP Lady Maroons.

However, like their women's volleyball counterparts, they squandered that golden advantage and shockingly lost the series.

Nevertheless, Lariba and the team managed to bounce back in a big way the following season, where Lariba was able to bag her second straight MVP, and more importantly, regain the throne atop the table tennis competition.

More importantly, she was awarded her first of two UAAP Athlete of the Year nods, sharing the fete with swimmer Hannah Dato of Ateneo and future chess grandmaster Janelle Frayna of FEU.

In her fifth and final playing year, she continued dominating her sport, earning another triumvirate of awards for her.

La Salle retained the title, and Lariba was once again awarded with an MVP and Athlete of the Year award, the latter a distinction she shared this time with volleyball superstar Alyssa Valdez and tanker Jessie Lacuna of Ateneo, and softball slugger Queeny Sabobo of Adamson.

Later in the year, she would make the biggest trip of her career to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, where she was given the honor of being the Philippines' flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.

She qualified to the Olympics by lording over the TTF-Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament held in Hong Kong. Her diligence was enough for her to secure the very last spot in the biggest sporting meet in the world.

Lariba was ousted by Congo's Han Xing in the preliminaries, but she had already accomplished a first just by being there.

Just over a year later, the rising star would face a different kind of battle. Lariba's career took a dramatic turn when she was diagnosed with AML in May 2017, and immediately underwent treatment.

Stars of table tennis representing the International Table Tennis Federation sent her messages of support and raised money to help with her chemotherapy.

Lariba underwent a bone marrow transplant in October, where she spent her 23rd birthday confined in the hospital.

"Stretching the widest smile that I can make to reach out my gratitude and thanks to all of you for making my 23rd birthday more meaningful and worthwhile! Spending it here in the hospital on Friday the 13th wasn't bad luck after all because you all made me feel lucky that I am celebrating my day with the rest of the world, with the best people and with all your heart-warming greetings, messages and words of encouragement! Thank you so much! I just want to thank you Lord for this another gift of my life. Now, I've come to appreciate life even more and just be thankful for the people and every blessing that come along, big or small, in any way," she said on Instagram.

"Don't worry, I am also doing the best that I can to recovery as much as possible and as soon as I can to get back in shape and be a better version of myself. This is #YanVersion2.0 thanking all of you once again and may we all celebrate life's wonderful journey! ��

#YanVersion2.0stillinProgress #KayaNatinYan #23naYan," she added.

Lariba would then be awarded the suffix of OLY in her name by the World Olympic Association in December of that year, a three-letter title which commemorated her stint as an Olympic athlete.

"Wow! This is such an amazing feeling right now. First and foremost, I want to thank You Lord for this privilege and wonderful gift You've blessed me with me. I owe this to You, to my family, my mentors and coaches, my friends, my supporters, and to each and everyone who have believed in me from the very start and all throughout my table tennis career and most especially my Olympic dream and journey," she said in a lengthy Instagram post.

"I offer this recognition to you. I just pray that with God's grace, I will always be guided to embody the values of Olympism and continue to be an example of hope and inspiration to others, everyday in my life. Definitely an early Christmas present and I wouldn't be any happier than this. I am really beyond blessed! THANK YOU LORD!"

By January, things took a turn for the worse when she began to experience blurry vision and a weakness in her left body. The cancer had spread to her brain and spinal cord.

She underwent the knife once again, having head surgery not too long after.

Months later, in August, Lariba went through a five-day round of chemotherapy, but she would never leave the hospital again. Lariba unfortunately lost her valiant battle against AML in the late hours of September 2.

Tributes poured in for the star immediately after her death, with the whole DLSU community dedicating their UAAP Season 81 to her.

UAAP Executive Director Rebo Saguisag then paid homage to Lariba in the season's opening press conference.

"In her last days, I guess Yanyan reminded us that sport is a platform, a tool that can be used to do good as she spoke about her bout with cancer. As the Good Book says, Yanyan fought the good fight," mentioned Saguisag.

In addition, Lariba was given the ultimate honor by her alma mater when her name was raised to the rafters of the Enrique M. Razon Sports Center earlier this year, becoming just the fifth La Salle athlete to be bestowed that honor after Kurt Bachmann, Lim Eng Beng, and Renren Ritualo (men's basketball), and Manilla Santos-Ng (women's volleyball).