Catching Lydia de Vega
THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco (The Philippine Star) - May 4, 2019 - 12:00am

For the past 15 years, Asia’s fastest woman has been working in Singapore, training their youth to run as fast as she did. Lydia de Vega has been sharing her knowledge and experience in several schools in the small city-state as a co-curricular activity. No pressure, very little stress. During breaks, she gets to return to the Philippines to spend time with her family, and her children in turn get to visit her frequently, since the Lion City is near. The STAR caught up with the 56-year-old Philippine coach as she spent time out with her daughter, volleyball player Steph Mercado.

Diay grew up very sheltered and overly protected by her father and eventual coach, Francisco, whom she called Tatang. Only a narrow alleyway separated their humble home in Meycauayan, Bulacan, from her school. For a long time, this was her world, and a handful of boys she would run around the neighborhood with. Tatang was very strict. Everything was forbidden.

“I didn’t have a childhood,” Lydia recalls. “I never even experienced watching a movie. No going out with friends. No sleepovers at the neighbors. Home, school. That was it. I only had my friends, who were all boys. I never had any girly girl friends. But when we played tag, I knew boys ran faster, so I had to get faster to beat them. I must have been good, because they never caught me.”

When she was 12, Diay was offered to join her school’s athletics team. She didn’t even know what track and field was. Tatang would definitely say no. But she had a plan. She kept her often day-long training a secret from her Tatang, often skipping school to train. In those days, you didn’t specialize in any event. You multi-tasked.

“Back then, you were all-around,” De Vega laughs. “You couldn’t choose. I did all the events: 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, hurdles, long jump.”

Inescapably, Tatang found out. His daughter was just that good that people would proudly tell him as she kept winning in meets. Seeing the immeasurable passion his little girl had for the sport, he made a pact with her. He would be her coach, but she would have to vow to never quit. Little did she know that he had also been a runner in his youth. His unbending determination to make Lydia better unearthed a strength in her that she never knew she had. When she was exhausted, and begged to stop, he would not let her. In spite, she would run her fastest to end the training. Eventually, she realized that he had helped her break her own mental barriers to winning.

After a big splash in the 1981 Manila SEA Games, Lydia caught fire. Her rivalry with India’s sprint hero PT Usha became legendary. De Vega won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash on Usha’s turf in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, serving notice that there was a new queen of the track. In 1985, Usha then beat her in the Asian Athletics Championships. Lydia’s critics came out of the woodwork. Some said she was done as the continent’s best. Then, in the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul, the Filipina phenom ended the debate with resounding triumphs in the 100- and 200-meter events. De Vega would be Asia’s fastest woman for a total of eight years, until 1990.

“Whenever I would run, I would simply do my best,” she stressed. “I don’t care who my opponents are. If I lose, it means I wasn’t at my best, and I will run better next time. You run against yourself. That is what I teach my athletes.”

Her Philippine records in the sprints have stood for over 30 years, proof that we have to find someone to follow her fleet footsteps. 

Long live the queen.

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