Hidilyn Diaz: A blueprint for success in sports and in life
MANILA, Philippines — The first few days after July 26, 2021, went by like a blur for Hidilyn Diaz, a string of hours spaced so closely together she could hardly tell them apart: Zoom interviews, candid celebratory chats with her teammates, other athletes and officials, photo ops, rapid testing. Had she even slept yet? She couldn’t tell.
She also didn’t mind. The 30-year-old weightlifter had just won the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal. The flurry of activities Diaz was thrust into after her achievement was as expected for someone who had just accomplished the final prerequisite to greatness.
After all her hard work, this was it for Diaz.
Or so many thought.
“Five days after winning [in] the Olympics,” Diaz said, she accepted that her life as a Filipino icon had just began.
“I had to embrace [the achievement] because it comes with a great responsibility,” she told the Inquirer last week.
The problem with greatness is that it traps an athlete in an endless loop of needing to remain great. After all, there is no harder fall than one from high above. From the outside, the Olympic gold medal—a historic first at that—may seem like the final stop for an athlete who had gone through a lot in her career.But Diaz has brushed up on the fine print that comes with greatness. She talked about the standards that she set for herself, which she started doing after she won the silver medal in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“There was a responsibility then, but now there’s the gold and the responsibility is much more,” she said. “But I consider all that a blessing.”
Perhaps the responsibility is greater because of the meaning she has attached to her feat.
When she beat the previously untouchable Chinese record-holder Liao Qiuyun in the women’s 55-kilogram weightlifting event with a dramatic final lift, Diaz instantly launched herself into the arms of an adoring country that had waited almost a century for an Olympic gold medal.
As stunned, rambling sportswriters at Tokyo International Forum began scrambling to turn a watershed moment in Philippine sports into a somewhat coherent dispatch, everywhere else she was already being assigned fungible titles: Weightlifting queen. Sports heroine. Trailblazer.
In interviews, Diaz would touch on her place in history briefly. But what she always doubles down on is the other meaning of the gold medal.
“I want to say that people should [look at this achievement] and believe that the Filipino can [be great],” Diaz said.
She said that her gold meant the Filipino no longer needs to settle for what is and can go after what should be.
Change of attitude
It is largely because of how she frames her triumph that she deserves an even more distinguished title: The Inquirer’s 2021 Filipino of the Year.
Diaz is one of two people to be bestowed that honor by the paper, the other being community pantry organizer Patricia Non.
“She deserves it,” Monico Puentevella, the president of the country’s weightlifting federation, told the Inquirer, adding that her feat has forever changed Filipinos’ attitude toward the sport.
“We have more people getting into weightlifting and more people eager to watch the sport now,” he said.
Liza Jaluag, a prominent weightlifting coach and one of the first female Filipino lifters to compete internationally, agrees.
“You have to admit, [as a spectator sport], weightlifting is boring,” Jaluag, who is currently based in Bohol, told the Inquirer with a chuckle over the phone. “The athlete goes up the stage, lifts and that’s it. But look at the people who still keep watching Hidilyn’s competition.”
And the even bigger change is that young children are now hitting weightlifting gyms. That wasn’t the case before.
“During our time, there was not much young athletes in the sport,” the 49-year-old Jaluag said.
Jaluag was part of the women’s weightlifting team in the 1991 Southeast Asian Games in Manila, which marked the first time the country sent women to compete in the sport in an international event. The women’s team then was filled with athletes culled from different sports; before Jaluag made the national team, she was a middle distance runner for the University of the East.
“[Recruiters] told us that if we’d join the weightlifting team, we’d get allowances and we’d have the chance to be part of the national team and compete abroad,” she recalled, adding with a laugh: “I think that day, our school lost its athletics team because a lot of us shifted to weightlifting.”
Rival to boxing
Largely because of Diaz, that has changed. And compounded by what Jaluag says is greater knowledge and better mentors, weightlifting has turned into a chief rival to boxing in producing world-class talents.
Julius Naranjo, Diaz’s current coach, is one of those experts. His Instagram feed is peppered with videos that are tailored for weightlifting geeks but are also a valuable resource for newbies who want to grasp the intricacies of the sport. And as Diaz’s fiancé, he has an enviable front-row seat to the “Hidilyn effect” on young weightlifters.“They get really motivated around her. They want to train harder and be better,” Naranjo said.
He’s using his access to try and change their mindset and establish a culture shift among young talents.
“I tell them that instead of trying to be like Ate Haidee, why don’t you try to be better than Ate Haidee, to be a better version of themselves and use Ate Haidee as inspiration,” he said. “Changing people’s mindset takes time but it’s a lot easier to influence people using what we’ve accomplished as an example.”
And when that example comes with tangible proof, like over P50 million worth of bonuses and incentives, plus other perks like houses and endorsement deals, selling young talent on all that hard work needed to become the next Diaz is a lot easier.
A way out
Currently, places like Zamboanga, Bohol and Cebu have become weightlifting hotbeds.
There is no distinct cultural trait that these places share that make them a thriving environment for the sport. Instead, the prodigies that have sprung from these areas have one thing that binds them: poverty.
And Diaz showed them a way out.
Elreen Ann Ando, a first-time Olympian who finished seventh in Tokyo hails from Cebu. She uses her allowance as a national athlete to help pay bills at home and purchase maintenance medicine for her father, who had a stroke.
“Because of weightlifting, I was able to finish my studies and help with household expenses,” Ando said.
Vanessa Sarno, an 18-year-old weightlifter from Bohol, has grown tired of her neighbors talking about her family’s living condition and wants to build a home of their own.
She is one of the rising stars being eyed as Diaz’s heir apparent and is on an accelerated trajectory; last year, she became the concurrent champion of the junior and senior divisions in her weight class.
Sarno’s 9-year-old sister, Veronica, is now training under Jaluag, who said young athletes hope that, like Diaz, they can haul their families into a more comfortable life.
“Right now, almost everywhere in provinces, you see weightlifting starting to become viable as a sport for young athletes,” Puentevella said.
And that, more than anything else, is what Diaz wants the next chapter of her gold medal feat to be—a means of sustaining the sport and providing inspiration for young Filipinos.
And it’s not just athletes.
Her own fable to tell
When Diaz speaks of her Tokyo triumph nowadays, it feels like she is narrating a fable. And she makes sure everyone understands the moral of the story and how it applies to other aspects in life.
“Look at what we’re going through now,” Diaz said in Filipino, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s truly a difficult time for us but we can make it through this. We can win against this. We just have to control the things we can control and not focus on those that we cannot.”
“We should never give up hope,” she added.
Everyone, Diaz believes, has a gold medal to shoot for. A difficult situation can be someone’s Olympic weightlifting stage.
And she isn’t all hippie talk.
In 2012, in the London Olympics, Diaz suffered the biggest defeat in her career, a “did not finish” that made her rethink her worth as an athlete.
“I wanted to quit. I felt like I was a loser,” she told the Inquirer in 2018.
But once, while taking a walk in Zamboanga, she chanced upon kids lifting weights in a nondescript gym. Seeing them somehow lit a fire inside her.
“I knew I wanted to give them a better gym,” she said. “They became my motivation. They ignited [the fire in] my heart.”
In 2016, after reassembling her career and winning the silver medal in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she built a spanking gym that houses her eponymous weightlifting academy.
The gym has produced world youth champions and national pool members and continues to provide support to athletes hoping to catch their break in the sport.
Diaz, on the other hand, is the break that weightlifting needed.
“She put our sport in the limelight,” Puentevella said. “She’s like [Manny] Pacquiao in the sense that everything she does is news.”
The first in her field
And when she’s in the news, the sport is, too.
Diaz occupies a spot in sports’ pantheon that’s entirely her own. The downside to that is she has no one’s example to follow.
When Pacquiao was beginning his ascent to the ranks of boxing’s global super elite, he had the likes of Pancho Villa, Gabriel “Flash” Elorde and even Luisito Espinosa to look back on—boxers whose careers touched various levels of global stardom.
For the most part, Pacquiao learned his lessons well. After what could have been the peak of his career, a victory over Oscar De La Hoya in 2008, Pacquiao kept his hunger, his desire, and chased what was then his white whale, one Floyd Mayweather Jr.
But even with all that, Pacquiao did not exactly navigate greatness with infallible certainty, making widely publicized mistakes outside the ring.
Eyes on Paris
Diaz wants to push on, too. Members of her vaunted Team HD and key backers like the MVP Sports Foundation (MVPSF) and Philippine Olympic Committee president Abraham Tolentino have egged her to go for gold in Paris 2024.
Diaz hopes she will have more medal-winning teammates in the next Olympics: “I still want to do weightlifting. I want to win gold in Paris. But I hope others, too, will win golds or other medals.”
That part about winning again, she has pretty much figured out.
How to continue being the inspiring public figure who fuels dreams in those who want to follow her arc, she is still working on.
“I want weightlifting promoted in every [local government unit], but I just don’t know how right now,” she said. “I want to continue helping people, keep inspiring them.”
She will have help.
“Hidilyn has proven time and again that she’s not just a champion in the sporting arena but in life as well with her continuous social work, said MVPSF president Al Panlilio.
“The MVPSF will continue to support Hidilyn in the arena and in everything that she does for the community as we also strongly believe in nation-building through the power of sports.”
But she’ll carry the bulk of the weight.
She’s a female lifter from Zamboanga with no path to retrace in a sport long dominated by men. And no Filipino athlete—regardless of sport—has ever achieved similar success.
Hidilyn Diaz is the blueprint. She has to set the example. But in doing so, Diaz says she will not live up to anyone’s expectations but hers alone.
“It’s going to empty me if I try to please everyone,” Diaz said. “I just want to be me.”
As her historic accomplishment and her latest accolade, which essentially brand her a Filipino worth emulating, have shown, being Hidilyn Diaz is more than enough.
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