TOKYO — There was never any doubt in Hidilyn Diaz’ mind that she would strike gold in the 55 kilogram division of women’s weightlifting at the Olympics this year. She left her destiny to the Lord, endured the pressure of an entire nation waiting for a breakthrough in a 97-year wait for Olympic glory and when the time came to win it all, rose to the occasion in writing a triumphant ending to a story made in heaven.
It took Diaz four Olympics to ascend the throne and the journey was far from smooth sailing. “In my first Olympics in 2008, I was 17, I didn’t know what to expect, it was like the opening of a door,” she said. “Then, in 2012, I realized I had a chance although I didn’t do well. In 2016, I felt I was finally in class and took the silver. In Tokyo, I was like a Dean’s Lister in my graduation.”
Before landing in Tokyo, she knew the expectation was high for a gold but wasn’t fazed. “Accept ko ang pressure,” she said. “I just tell myself I can do it, I claim it.” Diaz drew strength from prayer and in her own words, stayed connected with God. She did yoga to stave off stress and built mental toughness in weekly on-line sessions conducted by PSC sports psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad. Diaz also followed a strict diet formulated by sports nutritionist Jeaneth Aro.
In February last year, Diaz set up training camp in Kuala Lumpur with Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen and strength/conditioning coach Julius Naranjo, a former Guamanian weightlifter with whom she has developed a romantic relationship. They rented an Airbnb apartment until a lockdown precipitated by a surge in COVID-19 cases forced the team to relocate to Malacca in October. Somehow, Diaz managed to work through the struggles, training on an improvised podium in the backyard of a “kampung” house lent by a sympathetic Malaysian weightlifting official. She believed that the gold was hers for the taking but had to earn it the hard way.
In the way of Diaz’ ascendancy was Chinese favorite Liao Qiuyun who lifted 98 kilograms in snatch and 129 in the clean-and-jerk for a total of 227 to rule the 55 kilogram division at the World Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, in 2019. Diaz was third in the competition with a total of 214. They met again at the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan last April and once more, Liao hit paydirt with a total lift of 222 as Diaz fell to fourth with 212. Diaz said she wasn’t at her best, coming off a 15-month layoff from competition but at hindsight, it was a positive result since her performance exposed what she still had to work on in training before the Olympics. Samahang Weightlifting Ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella said Diaz’ showing threw off the opposition in downgrading her chances to medal in Tokyo.
The moment of truth came like the climax of a tele-series at the Tokyo International Forum last July 26. Both Liao and Diaz heaved 97 in snatch. Diaz attempted to lift 99 on her third attempt but couldn’t. Liao was more conservative and less ambitious as she went from 92 to 95 to 97. In the clean-and-jerk, they went mano-a-mano. Liao progressed from 118 to 123 and finally, to 126. Diaz powered from 119 to 124 and in her third try, went for broke in calling for three kilograms more. She picked up the bar, raised it close to her neck, her wrists bent backwards to carry the load then in a mighty heave, held it up one leg forward, one leg backward before putting both feet together in a display of strength. The lift was consummated and the gold was hers. The Philippines had finally broken a dry spell of nearly a century with its first Olympic gold in 22 appearances since 1924.
Diaz’ story has unraveled like a fairy tale. In her Olympic debut, she placed 10th of 12 in the 58 kilogram division. In 2012, Diaz was the country’s flagbearer at the opening parade in London but her performance on stage was forgettable, failing in three attempts to lift 118 in the clean-and-jerk. Then a friend suggested to drop down from 58 to 53 in preparing for Rio de Janeiro. That meant a serious diet and it paid off. Diaz lifted a total of 200 kilograms and bagged the silver in 2016. This year, organizers scrapped the 53 kilogram class and created the 55 category. The change proved providential for Diaz as she liked her chances at 55 because she could retain her power without reducing so much weight. It was like the road to gold was paved especially for her.
The fifth of six children, Diaz came from humble beginnings in Zamboanga City. Her father Eduardo was a tricycle driver before making a living as a farmer and fisherman. Her mother Emelita was a street vendor. Diaz liked sports from the start and a cousin introduced her to weightlifting after giving up on basketball and volleyball at the age of 11. Because of her squat build, Diaz seemed perfect for the sport, showing up boys in the neighborhood by lifting heavier stuff like cement blocks and pails of water. Eventually, Diaz joined competitions and scouts noticed her potential. Her rise to stardom was meteoric. She claimed a bronze at the 2007 SEA Games and was 10th at the 2006 Asian Games. Puentevella put his trust on Diaz and arranged a wildcard entry for her to compete at the 2008 Olympics as the youngest lifter in her division.
Diaz said her Olympic miracle was God’s handiwork. After clinching gold, she repeatedly mumbled prayers of thanks and wore the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal around her neck, dangling closer to her heart than the medal she won. The rewards that decorated the victory are symbolic of a grateful and proud nation — over P40 million, gasoline and free commercial flights for life, a vacation home in a resort, a condo unit and more. Diaz is living proof that dreams can come true with dedication, perseverance, hard work and faith.
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