“I’m really thankful for everything that’s given to me.”
It took almost 100 years for it to happen, but the Philippines finally got its first Olympic gold medal last July. Hidilyn Diaz outlifted her competition in the women’s 55 KG event at the Tokyo Games, breaking the Olympic record in the process.
“Nakaya natin… kaya natin ito,” she said, breathless, teary-eyed, and excited, when she met up with the Philippine press right after her win.
“Akala natin imposible. Akala ko din imposible. Nasa pandemic tayo, imposible ang Olympics, pero nandito tayo ngayon,” she said. “Kaya natin, wag kayong sumuko. Kung ano man challenges or trials yan, manalangin tayo kay God, mag–ga-guide siya sa atin. Proud to be Pinoy.”
It has indeed been a long and grueling road for the Zamboanga native, who, at 17 years old, finished 11th at her first Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008. Diaz would then compete at the 2012 and 2016 Games, winning a Silver Medal at the latter.
But pressure only mounted after her podium finish in Brazil five years ago. She admitted that found it difficult to sustain the success from Rio. However, when COVID hit, she felt a new sort of strain.
“I wanted to give up last, and I think March or April when they declared that the Olympics [will be postponed] and [it was like] I have no reason to continue. But here I am. Standing and [won] the gold medal [at] the Olympics during the pandemic.” Diaz tells Lifestyle Asia. “All of us are suffering but I’m happy that I became the source of happiness, inspiration, and hope to Filipinos.”
Her champion title came after her past duy as staff sergeant in the Philippine Airforce, when she was implicated in the ridiculously unfounded drug matrix perpetuated by the government.
“Sobrang gulo ng buhay ko nung time na yun and then we decided na I have to stop in school para makapag-training. I sacrificed a lot. Hindi ko nakasama yung nanay and tatay ko for many months and years na. Training siyempre masakit, lahat masakit,” the 30-year-old lists down, sharing just a fraction of what she went through.
“Pero may plano si God,” the Olympic champion says.
And those plans are unfolding beyond her athletic achievements. Currently, Diaz is finishing her thesis for the College of St. Benilde’s Business Management course. She still insists on completing her degree despite juggling her commitments since winning as a brand endorser, attending public engagements, and multiple interviews a day.
“It’s not easy because I’m already in my third year, and It’s hard. It’s hard to do it, but if you have dreams, you’ll find ways to do it,” she muses.
In addition, Diaz got engaged last October with her coach and now fiance Julius Naranjo. Although wedding planning isn’t at the forefront of Diaz’s mind just yet—she says there’s still work to be done in preparation for Paris 2024. After the next Olympics, Diaz fondly shares that she’s planning to have children with her to-be husband.
Diaz bested eight others at Tokyo 2020, and was in a dogfight with world record holder Liao Qiuyun of China as the competition drew to an exciting conclusion. The two would trade leads near the end, with Diaz needing to lift a kilogram heavier after each attempt to best the Chinese champion.
After Liao lifted a 126 to take back the lead with her last attempt, Diaz had to go for a 127—an Olympic record—to grab the gold. The Filipina then stepped onto the platform determined, while loudly repeating her mantra “one motion” over and over again.
Then, while the entire nation held its breath, she powerfully held on to her positions through the snatch and jerk, sealing the win.
Diaz then collapsed onto the floor crying as she finally achieved what countless of her countrymen have tried for so long. The wait was finally over, and it was the name of this strong, resilient, and courageous woman who will forever be in the Philippine record books.
Her well-deserved win came after tedious weightlifting training and emotional, spiritual, and mental preparation. Diaz shares that her sports psychologist, Dr. Katrina Trinidad, yoga meditation, and religious faith guided her through the journey beyond her athletic capacity.
“I always have a session with [Dr. Trinidad] before a competition, and I always receive good advice from her for my mental wellness, mental preparation, and mental setting,” Diaz shares about her sports psychologist, who’s been with her even before Rio 2016. “Then it changed before the [Tokyo 2020] after I competed in the Asian 2021 championship.”
Diaz continues sharing that she was being eaten by anxiety and nerves last April, which affected her performance, “I was not able to perform my best when I was in the Asian champ. But because of that, we learn as a team. So, with that, for the first [one to two months], I have a session with her.”
Her monthly sessions turned into twice-a-week sessions because the pressure took a toll on her. Diaz found refuge in Dr. Trinidad’s advice, “she always says that 1 percent [better every day]. And it works. But then, [when] I don’t do it, I’m always crying, I’m always frustrated.”
“I don’t only want to do one percent higher; I want to do 10 percent higher. It’s a good thing to have a sports psychologist who says one percent of your best will make you make small progress but can give you constant progress until you reach the Olympics,” Diaz looks back.
Her little improvements each day led to a victory for an entire nation.
With her historic win, Diaz will not only be celebrated throughout the country, but will be awarded sizeable incentives.
As a gold medal winner, Diaz was awarded P10 million each by the government, Pres. Duterte, Manny V. Pangilinan Sports Foundation, Udenna Corporation’s Dennis Uy, and San Miguel Corporation chief Ramon Ang.
House Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero, the Philippine Olympic Committee, and the Max’s Group all committed an P3 million each for Diaz. The champion will also receive P2.5 million from her Zamboanga hometown, and P1 million each from her alma mater Universidad de Zamboanga and the Senate.
She also won house and lots in Tagaytay and Zamboanga, a condominium unit in Eastwood, free flights from Air Asia, Philippine Airlines, and Cebu Pacific, a P600,000 beauty package from L’Oreal, and free gas, meals, and drinks for life from different establishments.
The prizes reflect just how much the country has been hungry for this Olympic win. Before this year, only two other athletes—boxers Mansueto Velasco (1996 Atlanta) and Anthony Villanueva (1964 Tokyo) ever came close to what Diaz has achieved.
When she came home to the Philippines from Tokyo, Diaz was also given as much of a hero’s welcome that a nation still suffering under lockdown can afford her. This included everything from receiving the congressional medal of excellence and being honored on a commemorative Philpost stamp along with her fellow Tokyo Games medalists. “I’m really thankful for everything that’s given to me,” she says.
Forward to the future
When the pandemic happened, Diaz and her team were stuck in Malaysia. Running out of funds, she reluctantly sent out a public plea for help.
“Nung nasa Malaysia kami. Pinadala niya yung mga taong tutulong sa amin para ma-survive namin ang pandemic. Sobrang thankful ako. Alam mo yun, yung nagte-training kami sa condominium, talagang mahirap ang buhay that time. Pero nakaya natin, namin, together with the team,” she explains.
“Thankful ako kasi alam ko lahat ng paghihirap na pinagdaanan ko may reason si God,” she continues. “So malaking bagay para sa akin. Worth it ito.”
She knows that it’s going to be worth it so much so that she has also chosen to give back to her sport. Diaz is donating P1 million worth of equipment to the Philippine Sports Commission to boost awareness for weightlifting and hopefully raise Olympians of tomorrow—a future that is fueled by the achievable possibility.
And Diaz provided that seed of belief with her win in Tokyo. Nobody can say that it can’t be done anymore because this amazing woman is living proof it could.
Now, she continues to live a life driven by faith, intent, bigger goals, and life milestones. “For me, a meaningful life is living with your purpose, [living] a peaceful life because you cannot buy peace,” Diaz muses. “A meaningful life has direction.”
Text JACOB SAMPAYAN and MICA TORRES CRUZ
Photos DOOKIE DUCAY
Creative direction MARC YELLOW
Makeup JUAN SARTE
Hair CELESTE TUVIERA
Styling LYN ALUMNO, RAF VILLAS, CLARISSE FURIO
Shoot coordination MAE TALAID, MJ ALMERO, ERICA LUNA
Shot Location on location at SHERATON MANILA
Special thanks to GELLI ANNABELLE CAHULOGAN