The long wait has finally ended. It took the Philippines nearly a century – 97 years to be exact – before claiming an Olympic gold medal and when Hidilyn Diaz broke through in women’s 55 kilogram weightlifting in Tokyo last Monday, the entire Filipino nation was euphoric. In 21 previous Olympic appearances since 1924, the Philippines could only collect 10 medals, three silver and seven bronze. There were two close calls for a gold in boxing but featherweight Anthony Villanueva was robbed in 1964 and lightflyweight Onyok Velasco was also a victim of a bum decision in 1996.
Diaz, 30, did it in her fourth Olympics. The journey to the top was arduous. She made her Olympic debut in Beijing at 17 in 2008 and finished 10th of 12, lifting a total of 192 in the 58 kilogram division. In 2012. Diaz was the Philippine delegation’s flagbearer in London and failed in three attempts to lift 118 in the clean-and-jerk, walking off the platform without a final score among 19 competitors in the 58 kilogram class. Then, a Polish friend suggested trying a lower weight class. “My friend Yacek is married to a Filipina Elisa Raymundo of Quezon City and used to drop by the gym at Rizal Memorial when visiting from California where they live,” recounted Diaz. “In March 2015, he emailed stats of weightlifters who were of my size and what weight divisions they competed in. He found out with my build, my chances of winning would be higher if I competed at 53 instead of 58.” So in 2016, Diaz dropped down to 53, lifted a total of 200 kilograms and bagged the silver.
This year, organizers scrapped the 53 kilogram division, created the 55 class and adjusted the next category from 58 to 59. Diaz liked her chances at 55 because she could retain her power without reducing so much weight. Training for Tokyo was extra difficult because of the pandemic. She was supposed to set up camp in Taiwan but it wasn’t possible with her Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen. So her team went to Kuala Lumpur in February last year and arranged an Airbnb set-up. A lockdown in the Malaysian capital forced Diaz, Gao and strength and conditioning coach Julius Naranjo to relocate to Malacca last October. They improvised a platform and did backyard training.
Through the hardships and pain of four Olympic cycles, Diaz persevered. She powered her way to lift a total of 224, one over China’s Liao Qiuyun, to end the Philippines’ gold medal drought in Tokyo. Before the Olympics started, Diaz said she learned to cope with the pressure of performing at the highest level by staying connected with God, doing yoga to stave off stress and building mental toughness in weekly on-line sessions conducted by PSC sports psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad. “With focus, a healthy environment, good food, recovery and the right training, you can expect positive results,” she said. Of course, everything happens with God’s grace. Chef-de-mission Mariano Araneta said the most important medal wasn’t the gold but what was around Diaz’ neck closest to her heart, the Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal from the Congregation of the Mission and Daughters of Charity. The first thought that entered Diaz’ mind after clinching the gold was thanking the Lord for the blessing. She crossed herself repeatedly. It wouldn’t have happened without the strength of prayers.