Picture by 2019 Getty Images

Trio Ceniza, Ando and Tabique powering the Philippines' Olympic future

Elreen Ando, John Ceniza, and John Tabique are three next-gen weightlifters dreaming of Olympic glory, here's why we should be excited about their Tokyo 2020 journey
By Ken Browne

Elreen Ando, John Ceniza, and John Tabique are part of a new and exciting generation of Filipino weightlifters following on the path paved by Hidilyn Diaz.

While Rio 2016 silver medallist Diaz has her sights set on winning the Philippines' first ever gold medal in Tokyo at her fourth Games, there's a young generation quietly on the rise around her.

Twenty-two-year-olds Ando (women's 64kg) and Ceniza (men's 61kg) will compete alongside 19-year-old teammate Tabique (men's 96kg) and Diaz at the Asian Weightlifting Championships from 16 to 25 April 2021, in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with Olympic qualification to Tokyo 2020 in summer 2021 on the line.

The three rising stars are national champions and in 2019 both Ando and Ceniza took second place at the Southeast Asian Games held in Manila.

For teenager Tabique, doors are opening that he never even knew existed.

"I am so happy because it is my first time to join an international event. It is the biggest weightlifting tournament that I’m joining. I am so thankful to God because all my sacrifices and hard work finally pays off,” he told the Cebu Daily News.

Hidilyn Diaz's silver medal in Rio was a victory for women and weightlifting across the country, she became the first Filipina to win an Olympic medal of any colour, and it has inspired a weightlifting revolution in the Philippines.

Now grassroots programs support young athletes looking to get into the sport, like the Cebu City Sports Commission’s (CCSC) initiative which has helped Ando, Ceniza and Tabique get to where they are today.

And while COVID-19 hasn't made preparations easy, coach Ramon Solis says that they have changed up and adapted to the new not-so-normal.

"We have been training earnestly since last July," Solis said to CDN in early March 2021.

"Actually, we have joined many virtual tournaments. We competed in seven virtual tournaments for our ranking, but this Asian Championships, this is the biggest because this is the last tournament for the rankings and this is prior to the official Olympic qualifying."

Weightlifting Olympic qualification

Eight top lifters in each weight category of the world rankings will likely make it to the Tokyo Games with a total of 112 weightlifters travelling to the Japanese capital this summer.

And while qualification looks a formality for Hidilyn Diaz - she's currently ranked number two in her weight class - the other Filipino hopefuls will have to bring their A-game to Tashkent.

But things are looking good too for Ando, Ceniza and another teammate Kristel Macrohon who are all in the top eight in the world rankings in their categories.

The 2019 SEA Games were held in Manila and Filipino weightlifters shone.

A 98kg snatch and 115kg clean and jerk gave Ando silver in the 64kg category, and it might have been gold had there not been some unfortunate controversy and confusion about the clock leading to her timing out before her final lift.

Watching on, Hidilyn Diaz was devastated for teammate, shedding tears in the stands.

Meanwhile 24-year-old Macrohon claimed the women's 71kg title at her first SEA Games in Manila, and she came third at the Roma 2020 World Cup in Italy.

The president of the Filipino national weightlifting governing body Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas (SWP), Monico Puentevella, spoke confidently about the women's chances of making it to Tokyo with the Inquirer, and said that the men have a "fighting chance".

“Our women have stronger chances because competition in men’s division is far too advanced, although we still have a fighting chance in men’s division.”

Despite tough competition, Ceniza has proved he can compete on the international stage too, also finishing on the podium at the Roma 2020 World Cup.

A big 152kg clean and jerk compensated for a disappointing 117kg snatch to give him a total lift of 269, enough to land him on the podium in third place in the men’s 61kg category behind champion Tuan Kim Thach of Vietnam and silver medallist Shota Mishvelidze of Georgia.

Both Ceniza and teammate Nestor Colonia are in with a shot at qualification for Tokyo.

“My ultimate goal is to become an Olympian someday" - Tabique

For Tabique, the youngest of the Cebuano trio, he was unlucky to miss out on a chance to display his talents at the home SEAG because featured weight categories only went up to 73 kilograms while he competes in the heavier 96kg category.

He started pumping iron at 13 and became national champion while still in high school, a rapid rise that reflects the pace of growth in the sport across the country.

“I joined weightlifting with the hopes that I can get a scholarship, but I didn’t expect to reach this far," Tabique tells CDN.

"I did not expect that I will become part of the Philippine team and to compete in the Asian Championships. All I remembered was my neighbour encouraging me to join weightlifting because of the free scholarship."

Now he studies criminology at the University of Cebu, and understands the opportunity he has in front of him.

“This event is the most important competition that I’m joining. This is where I need to prove to everyone why I deserve the chance to become a member of the Philippine team. I will do my very best because I know more opportunities will come my way if I perform well,” he added.

The bright future of Filipino weightlifting

The rise of John Tabique and the Cebuano trio is just one example of weightlifting flexing its muscles as one of the fastest-growing sport in the Philippines.

It's the house that Hidilyn Diaz built and she says that the generation coming behind Tabique is even more exciting.

Making an appearance at the Sports for Women's Empowerment and Employment Program (SWEEP), an online international conference organized by SportPhil, Diaz talked about Ando, Macrohon, and the other emerging women on the weightlifting scene.

“They’re next to me,” she said. "But there are more kids following, especially in the gym I built after winning in the Olympics."

Diaz used some of her Olympic winnings to build her own gym in her hometown Zamboanga City, and lots of aspiring heavy metallers have taken up the sport, particularly a lot more young girls, inspired by their hero Hidilyn.

Now she's set on winning the country's first ever Olympic gold medal in any sport, knowing what that would mean for Filipina women in sport, and for the young women in her sport.

"My motivation, why am I still struggling? Because I know I can win," she said.

"I know we Filipinos can win here at the Olympics." - Hidilyn Diaz