Hidilyn Diaz lurking in the shadows

I recall the first time I interviewed Olympic silver medalist Hidilyn Diaz. It was in March of 2016, months before the Rio Olympics. I braved the traffic of Manila and caught her training at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex on a rainy weekday afternoon. I caught her deep into her routine.  She was doing her reps, lifting weights changing the plates, fixing the bar. Remarkably, she was doing all these with no one assisting her.  She was literally on her own.

It was odd that not much was being written about her way back then.  She was hidden from everyone else, while preparing for her third Olympic stint.  There were no paparazzi around and for all intents and purposes, there were no fans hovering over her.  In most other countries, an athlete of this caliber attracts a lot of interest. Local PBA players were getting more media mileage and support.

It could be argued that this is because of her lackluster performance in the past two Olympiads, which did not seem to indicate that she had a chance at all in Rio. This was highlighted by a “failed” lift in London. But when I saw her that afternoon, I had a gut feeling that something good was going to happen in Rio.

But as history unfolded, Hidilyn Diaz brought home a silver medal in the women’s 53-kg weight division, ending the Philippines’ 20-year Olympic medal drought.

A key move in winning in Rio was that she chose to strategically compete at 53 kilograms. In that category, she successfully lifted a total of 210 kg. (Snatch- 88kg. /clean and jerk- 112kg.)

LIFE CHANGING MOMENT

 “Noong paglapag ng eroplano sa ‘Pinas, ‘di ko in-expect na ganu’n ang pag-welcome sakin, ‘di ko inaakala na napalaking bagay pala ‘pag manalo sa Olympics. Then after that, narealize ko, ‘di pala ‘yun medal medal lang, may responsibilidad na ko sa young generation kasi public figure na ko.”

 (When the plane landed in the Philippines, I did not expect that kind of welcome, I didn’t know that winning in the Olympics was that big.  I realized then that it’s not about the medal only, I have a responsibility to the young generation because I became a public figure.)

Suddenly, all eyes were on Diaz. Everybody loves a champion. After also wresting the gold in the Asian Games in 2018, she was eventually promoted to sergeant in the Philippine Air Force. More notably, financial incentives began pouring in. Her life changed for the better.  She was able to purchase a house and lot and as a way of giving back, she has been able to build a center to start the youth into weightlifting.

THE ROCKY ROAD TO TOKYO

Diaz continued with her winning ways, collecting more medals in various competitions after Rio.  In 2020, the call to represent the country for maybe one last time in the world’s biggest sporting event presented itself.

Early last year, Diaz flew to Malaysia to train for the Asian qualifiers with the hope of competing in the Olympics.  

Then, the pandemic hit.

Rather than be rattled by the situation, team Diaz remained in Malaysia and adjusted its training program. After a year of waiting, they now find themselves in the same situation.  The qualifiers are scheduled in April of 2021.

AWAY FROM THE CROWD, WORKING IN THE SHADOWS

It is remarkable that once again, Diaz is training away from the lights, the media frenzy, the expectations and attention of fans and followers.  Training in Malaysia, away from all these, seems to have brought her back to those lonely days or working out alone.  A setting she seems to be comfortable with.

But, being a champion has its perks.  When in the past she seemed to be doing everything alone, this time she is surrounded by a group of individuals, who actively add value to her preparation. Team Hidilyn is composed of Head Coach Kaiwen Go, Assistant and Strength and Conditioning Coach Julius Naranjo, Sports Nutritionist Jeaneth Aro and Sports Psychologist Karen Trinidad. Clearly having a counsel of many is favorable for Diaz as she prepares for her fourth Olympics.

Hidilyn shares that this time, she will be competing in the 55-kg category. While this is a higher weight class, Hidilyn is assured that they have prepared the correct strategy and have been focused on proper preparation.  In fact, the Covid-19 situation, which delayed the qualifiers for a year, she says has given them more time to formulate, organize and plan.

Aside from being the third Filipino to clinch an Olympic silver medal (the first two were boxers Anthony Villanueva in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Mansueto Velasco in the 1996 Atlanta games), she was also the first to win a medal of any color in a non-boxing event.  Also, she was the first Filipina to win an Olympic medal and as mentioned the first Filipino to compete in 4 Olympiads.  Even with these accolades, many sports enthusiasts are amazed why she does not get more attention or support than what she is enjoying now.

 Hidilyn shares that she is happy with what she achieved and content with what she has received.  She will continue training in a foreign country with the sole objective of hopefully winning another medalº regardless of the level fan following or size of financial support. 

At this point of her career, she is more focused on a much larger and significant pursuit.   She yearns to use weightlifting as a platform to encourage and inspire the next generation.  

 “Come and join Weightlifting.  ‘Wag kayong matakot sumubok mag-weightlifting, masaya ang weightlifting. Less injury ang weightlifting at ‘di totoo mga myths about weightlifting na ‘di ka tatangkad at ‘di ka mabubuntis. Look for good coaches na tuturuan kayo ng tamang technique.  I hope to see you in the Olympic podium.  Kaya niyo ‘yan at isipin ‘di madaling maging atleta, kailangan talaga ng disiplina at consistency sa training.  At parating paniwalaan at mahalin ang sarili.”

(Come and join weightlifting. Do not be afraid to try weightlifting, weightlifting is fun.  In weightlifting there are less injuries and the myth that you will not grow tall or get pregnant is not true. Look for good coaches that will teach you the right technique.  I hope to see you in Olympic podium. You can do it and remember that it is not easy to be an athlete; you need discipline and consistency in training.  And always believe and love yourself.)

HIDILYN DIAZ LURKING 

Weightlifting is not a popular sport in the Philippines.  It is a wonder why someone like Hidilyn Diaz would give a huge amount of her life to it. Individuals with a weaker resolve would have given up long ago.  But still, she pushes on proving that discipline and commitment are the most important traits required to succeed.  Even without the loud affirmation of crowds and supporters, Diaz continues to barrel through the challenges and roadblocks. Her motivation is not simply to lift the plates laid out to her, but to raise and boost the hopes and dreams of tomorrow’s generation. And if staying in the shadows is the way to go, Diaz will continue lurking until the time her light shines through once again.

* * *

Mike Ochosa is an avid sportsman. He has written for various broadsheets and on line publication providing his thoughts and insights on various sports. He is a freelance TV boxing analyst having sat ringside in 14 of Pacquiao’s fights and for various international sports networks as well. He was President of Punchout Boxing Club and is currently President and Program Director of Philippine Habagat Baseball.  

Follow him on social media: Website: mikeochosa.com FB: https://www.facebook.com/coachmikeochosa/,  IG: @coachmike.O  Twitter account, https://twitter.com/mikeochosa 

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