Ilocano Shark: The War Hero Who Won the First Olympic Medal for the Philippines

Teofilo Yldefonso was an Olympian and a hero of World War II. 

Teófilo E. Yldefonso was the first Filipino medalist in the Olympics. He won bronze at the 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam, Netherlands, where he represented the Philippines in the 200-meter breaststroke.

According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Yldefonso is the only Philippine athlete to date to win back-to-back Olympic medals in any sport.

In 1932, he won another bronze medal for the Philippines in the Los Angeles Olympics. When he competed in the 1936 Olympics, he placed seventh. Adolf Hitler was in the audience and was among thhose who witnessed him swim. 

Colorized Photo of Teofilo Ildefonso by Adlai Jan Garcia Jawid

Photo Colorized by Adlai jan Garcia Jawid.

Prior to competing in the Olympics, Yldefonso had enlisted in 1920 in the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts, a unit under the direct command of the U.S. Army in the Philippines. The young soldier rose to prominence when he competed at various meets in the region.


As a young boy, his “training” consisted of swimming through the rapids of the Guisit River in his hometown of Ilocos Norte. There, he would assist women crossing the river while carrying their laundry. When he enlisted in the military, he used the military camp’s swimming pool to practice. He eventually won gold at the Far Eastern Games in 1923, 1927, 1930, and 1934.

Teofilo Yldefonso and His Medals

Photo by Public Domain.

Father of Modern Breaststroke

By the time Yldefonso was competing in the Olympics, he had already earned the nickname, “Ilocano Shark” for his unique style and speed. His breaststroke would capture the attention of the swimming world, because unlike the traditional breaststroke, Yldefonso’s style brought the stroke more to the surface of the water instead of underwater, as was more common at that time. More swimmers adopted this style, which prompted European textbooks to call Yldefonso “The Father of the Modern Breaststroke.”

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Teofilo Yldefonso in World War II

During the Olympics, he developed a close bond with Japanese rival, Yoshi Tsuruta, who won gold medals at the Amsterdam Olympics and the Los Angeles Olympics. 

Yoshi Tsuruta at the 1928 Olympics

Photo by Unknown. Photo in Public Domain.

When the fighting started between Japan and the Philippines during World War II, the two swimmers were enlisted in their respective countries’ armed forces. Yldefonso rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Philippine Scouts, which was a unit composed of native Filipinos assigned to the U.S. Army’s Philippine Department. 

On the other hand, Tsuruta was recalled to active duty service with the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1943.

According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Yldefonso was among the thousands of Filipino and American soldiers who suffered in the Death March. Although he survived it, he eventually died in a Japanese prison camp in the arms of his younger brother. 


Tsuruta, his swimming rival and friend of many years, learned that Yldefoso was captured in the Philippines. He immediately wrote an order for his release, but it was too late. 

Yldefonso allegedly received his release order from Tsuruta but decided to stay with his men. He died at the age of 39. 

In 2006, the government of Piddig in Ilocos unveiled a monument in honor of Teofilo Yldefonso as a testament to his legacy as a champion swimmer and war hero. 


International Swimming Hall of Fame. (2010). Teófilo Yldefonso—Hall Of Fame Pioneer. Retrieved from on 05 August 2021. 


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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor-at-Large
Mario Alvaro Limos is features editor-at-large at Esquire Philippines, and heads the Lifestyle and Esports content of as its section editor. Email him at [email protected] and [email protected]
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