Run free, Lydia

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

I am willing to deal with the ramifications of being my full self. – Gary Vaynerchuk

The outpouring of love and support for the family of Lydia de Vega is not surprising. Those of us who knew her can attest to how easy it was to be around her. She walked around us all with the beauty, grace and charm of royalty, but her feet were firmly on the ground, even when she was swiftly transcending her sport to become a symbol of what an athlete should be.

Her father, Francisco or “Tatang,” a former police officer, was incredibly strict with her, only allowing her the short distance between home and school. She played in the street with boys, and therefore had to be strong enough, fast enough, to beat them at tag, hide and seek and those other childhood games kids today no longer play. And when she initially struggled with athletics (she didn’t even know what “track and field” was when she was first recruited for her school team in Bulacan), Tatang took it upon himself to train her. This was where Diay’s inner steel was forged. In that inescapable, restrictive, harsh setting, she discovered her iron will. If her own father could put that much pressure on Diay, nothing that anyone else could say or do would shake her.

In 1979, De Vega joined the first batch of athletes to train in Baguio under Project: Gintong Alay, the predecessor of the Philippine Sports Commission. She was the consummate good soldier. It didn’t matter if she was ill, injured or suffering monthly female discomforts. She’d just grab a towel, wipe herself off, and run the next race. Lydia was the hammer that Philippine athletics used to ward off all usurpers. Every little girl of a generation wanted to be like the fleet, long-legged heroine who seemed impervious to suffering.

But Diay had her private pains, too. Tatang was merciless in training and competition. When she would lose, some sportswriters declared her washed up, ironically before she beat India’s formidable PT Usha to cement her own immortality as Asia’s speed queen. There was the loneliness of competing away from her family, the occasional burnout. All these were painful vulnerabilities. But when she donned the tight-fitting red and blue of the national team, all of that faded away, and she became the superhero we looked up to.

This writer was fortunate to have watched Diay, covered her races, and worked with her on SEA Games broadcasts. She had no ego, even as people of all nationalities stopped her for photos before the word “selfie” even existed. Lydia was never in disguise, except for the mild confusion she caused when she first cut her hair short around 1995.

Consider this: Lydia retired when the Internet was in its infancy, yet most people knew who she was. She held records that have stood for decades, but the numbers are not what people remember. The public has an affinity, nay, love for her. They remember how Diay made them feel. She was authentic, true to herself, loyal to friends and family. Friendships never deteriorated, but were merely paused when she moved to Singapore to coach and teach. Run free, Diay. We will continue to tell future generations about your greatness, as an athlete, person and friend.


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