For 97 years, the Philippines has been trying to bring home a gold medal from the Olympics. Three years before the long wait reached a hundred, the drought has been ended when weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz demonstrated her strength and finesse during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
After lifting 127 kilograms in the Clean and Jerk and raising a total weight of 224 kilograms, Hidilyn won gold. Her joy, which was evident on her face, was shared by the millions of Filipinos watching from the safety of their homes.
While many celebrated her success, Hidilyn’s memories came rushing back, that she has indeed come a long way and all of her hard work and sacrifices were not in vain.
Looking back on a dream
Before Hidilyn became an Olympic gold medalist, she was living her life in her hometown in Barangay Mampang, Zamboanga City. She is the fifth of six children and had tried several sports such as basketball and volleyball before she found her calling in weightlifting.
She was introduced to the latter when she watched her cousins lift big and heavy pieces of wood. With her interest piqued, Hidilyn knew that this was something she wanted to and can do. In the meantime, her experience comes from carrying five-gallon containers filled with water for her family.
Luckily, her family was supportive of Hidilyn’s newfound passion. Her cousin Allen Jayfrus Diaz taught her the basics of the sport using homemade barbells made from plastic pipes and concrete weights shaped in tin cans.
And to further her knowledge and experience, Hidilyn joined Batang Pinoy and eventually became a national athlete and was placed under the guidance of her first coach, Tony Agustin, a medalist in the Southeast Asian Games.
It was Agustin who dreamed of great things for Hidilyn. And even though she didn’t believe it at first, it was made evident that she was meant for greatness.
Her early campaigns
One of Hidilyn’s earliest successes in her career was back in 2008 when she was selected as a wildcard entry for the Beijing Games, thus making her the first-ever Filipina to compete in weightlifting. She was the first since 1988 to participate in the sport and also the sixth lifter overall.
Her next campaign came in 2012. The 21-year-old Hidilyn at the time, who now has a Southeast Asian Games silver medal to her name, headed to London to vie for another win. But being one of two competitors to record a DNF (did not finish) in the 58-kilogram division after failing to lift 118 kilograms in three attempts in the clean and jerk, a win wasn’t in the books for her–yet.
But things took a turn for the better in 2016 when Hidilyn headed to Rio. Before Rio, she booked several significant wins such as bagging gold in the 2015 Asian Weightlifting Championships in Phuket, Thailand, a bronze medal in the 2015 World Weightlifting Championships in Houston, Texas, and another bronze in the 2016 edition of the Asian tilt in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
A common denominator that helped her achieve all these wins is her weight class. By this time, Hidilyn competed in the 53-kilogram division and won, thus propelling her to the competition in Brazil.
Despite having a slow start where she lifted 88 kilograms to tie her at fourth after the snatch, she was prepared to receive bronze after lifting 112 kilograms on her second attempt, jumping past South Korea’s Yoon Jin-Hee.
Yet it seems Hidilyn was meant for more than just third place. When China’s Li Yajun, who reset the earlier Olympic Record with a 101-kilogram snatch lift, failed to make a single clearance in the clean and jerk, Hidilyn placed second.
Later on, Hidilyn would continue her winning streak as she became the first weightlifter to win gold in the Asian Games in 2018, gold in 2019 Southeast Asian Games, silvers in the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games as well as the 2019 Asian Championships, as well as two more bronze awards in the World Championship.
This success is what fueled Hidilyn during the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan to work for more.
In Tokyo, Diaz cleared 94 and 97 kilograms in the snatch. And even though she failed to lift 99 kilograms, she maintained an aura of ease and calm which was seen by the smile on her face.
As the competition neared its end, Hidilyn went head-to-head with China’s Liao Qiuyun, the world record holder in the category and total marks after setting the standard back in 2019. Unfazed, Hidilyn cleared an Olympic record-setting 127 kilograms in her third try, hiking her tally to 224 kilograms, just one kilogram ahead of Liao’s 223 kilograms total.
It was this final push that Hidilyn wrote her story in history and won gold for the Philippines after 97 years.
Hoping to inspire more
Looking back, Hidilyn has nothing but gratitude towards her team, “Team HD.” Her journey hasn’t been an easy one with doubts at the beginning. Despite that, they never gave up and kept on improving in every way they can, especially Hidilyn.
Their efforts and preparation over the years bore fruit as Hidilyn brought home gold for herself and her country.
Members of Team HD include Chinese mentor Gao Kaiwen, strength and conditioning coach Julius Naranjo, sports nutritionist Jeaneth Aro, and psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad.
Before they set out for the Tokyo Olympics, the journey of HD was featured in a four-part documentary series titled “Let’s Go HD!”
In the documentary series, Hidilyn was able to do a “video diary” that’s filled with heartfelt videos that shows both the highs and lows of being an elite athlete while she was training in Malaysia.
According to Hidilyn, she hopes to inspire more Filipinos about her journey and share the struggles and successes of being an elite athlete to ultimately encourage her fellowmen that they can make their dreams come true if they put their heart and mind into it.