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She had a humble beginning that is the stuff of star-success tales.
Her father Eduardo was a tricycle driver who had turned to farming and fishing. After classes, she would help her mother Emelita sell fish. Hidilyn was the fifth of six siblings. There was no running water in the Diaz home in rural barangay Mampang, Zamboanga City and it was Hidilyn’s chore to fetch gallons of water from a well that was quite a distance from their home. Some now say that was her first training for the Olympic gold.
Her cousin Allen Jayfrus Diaz first taught her the basics of weightlifting. Mampang is some 10 kilometers away from the city center. When she began training at a gym, she would wash jeepneys for a fee just to raise transportation money to go to the gym.
While a college student at the Universidad de Zamboanga, Hidilyn qualified for the Asian Youth Junior Weightlifting Championships in Jeonju, South Korea, where she won the gold. She would later quit her computer science studies at UZ, thinking it was not suitable for her.
The irony is that she began her Olympic dream only as a wild-card entry. The Philippine Weightlifting Association selected her for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, although she did not qualify but was only allowed to compete. She was the first female Filipino weightlifter to compete in the Olympics. She broke her previous record at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games, but she had placed only second to last among a field of 12 weightlifters. Hidilyn did not see that as the end of hope.
She qualified for the 2012 Olympics in London and was chosen as the flagbearer of the Philippines at the opening ceremonies. In London, she finished only 12th among 19 competitors. “However her 118 kg Clean and Jerk was unsuccessful after three attempts. She was one of two competitors (along with Lina Rivasof Colombia) to end with an official result of ‘Did Not Finish’ (DNF) in the event,” related sportswriter Rick Olivares.
In the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, she aimed only for a bronze medal. Instead, she had broken her own record and won silver, the Philippines’ first after twenty years and the first non-boxing medal for the country since 1936.
The financial rewards for that silver medal enabled her to train in Malaysia beginning February 2020. Malaysia would later impose travel restrictions for the pandemic by April, closing all sports gyms in Kuala Lumpur, including the gym where she had trained. That did not deter Hidilyn. She improvised by using a bamboo stick and large water-filled bottles as do-it-yourself training equipment. After she had moved to Malacca in October 2020, the Malaysian government imposed even stricter social interaction restrictions that affected sports gyms. Again, she was undeterred. She trained in the open-air under the sweltering heat. Those in Zamboanga city who know her are not surprised. She has always had persistence and focus, says city councilor Elbert Atilano, Hidilyn’s first coach.
Her decision to train outside the country was also triggered by her concern for personal safety. In April 2019, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo mentioned Hidilyn as part of a matrix that plotted for the ouster of the Duterte government. Without offering any evidence to support the accusation, Hidilyn was trolled by pro-Duterte troll armies. She had received death threats. She then bared she had feared for her safety and that of her family.
“I am so focused on my goal for Tokyo 2020. Please do not drag the name of someone who is so busy sacrificing everything for the Philippines, doing everything to represent the Philippines in weightlifting, in Philippine sports but you suddenly put her name in a baseless matrix,” she said.
At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo the other day, the Chinese weightlifter Liao Qiuyun, the world record holder, was expected to claim the gold. For Hidilyn, she had not successfully lifted the 127kg clean and jerk previously, not even during her trainings, she recounted. “I've been trying it during training, but I haven't been able to lift it. Every time I try it, I couldn't do it.”
At the end of the day, it was the Philippine tricolor and the Lupang Hinirang that went up over China. It was an awesome moment. All the Philippines stopped.
Ponder these: We first participated in the 1924 Olympics in Paris 97 years ago; boxer Anthony Villanueva gave us our first silver in the Tokyo Olympics 57 years ago; swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso was the only other Olympian before Hidilyn to win two medals for the country – bronze in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and bronze in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics.
Hidilyn not only brought us a gold. She teaches us that one can stand on hope because of love of country. That was all she had.
The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.