Exclusive: Hidilyn Diaz on eating her way to Olympic weightlifting glory
A favourite line of many modern nutritionists is to ‘eat your way to success’ - meaning to improve your eating habits rather than cutting it out - in order to achieve a goal.
Diaz was the lightest athlete in the 58kg weight class when she made her Olympic debut at Beijing 2008.
After gaining more body mass she managed some personal bests at London 2012 in the snatch event, before slipping in the clean and jerk.
But her progress came crashing down in 2014 when she suffered a bad knee injury.
She decided to overhaul her conditioning programme and dropped down to the 53kg bracket.
The decision wasn’t easy as it regularly involved some extreme cutting measures to make competition weigh-ins, but it proved a masterstroke in terms of her performance.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics she became the first woman from the Philippines to win a medal after finishing with silver.
Olympic Channel sat down for an in-depth video interview with 2018 Asian Games champion Diaz, who has just been forced to move her training base from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca 120km away with a rise in Covid cases prompting stricter quarantine measures in the Malaysian capital.
Olympic Channel: What do you miss about not being at home in the Philippines?
Hidilyn Diaz: I miss everything at home in the Philippines. I miss my friends. I miss my dog. I miss the food. I miss my jalan-jalan (to go out). We want to go outside of the city. We want to go Borocay. The Philippines is really good, it's really beautiful. But right now I can’t do anything and I really miss my family. I didn't go home last December because I was preparing for a competition. Last January I had to say no to food and drink. December is a very festive month for us Filipinos and we eat the whole month! That's what I miss being with my family right now. I really miss them.
Every time there's a birthday I'm just crying because I wish I was there to feel their presence and feel their love. I can’t eat the food because I'm a weightlifter and I have to diet. I have to discipline myself to control the food. I have to lose four kilos if I eat a lot. So it's really hard for me to eat a lot if I have competition.
OC: Is there something from home that you always carry around with you wherever you are in the world?
HD: It's the value I have in my heart. I always say I'm a Filipino. I'm proud to be Filipino. And whenever I train with Malaysians here in training camp, I cook up Filipino food for them. And I want to say, "Oh, this is our food." I'm proud to cook our Filipino food.
OC: Who would you say are some of your sporting heroes in your sporting idols?
HD: When I was young it was Manny Pacquiao. As a Filipino, he's the icon. We all want to meet him and to know his story. Then when I grew up and I stayed in the Philippine Sports Commission (accommodation), I have a dorm-mate there, she's an Olympian and my sports hero called Marestella Torres Sunang.
She has been at the Olympics (in long jump) three times already. She is a symbol of discipline and self-control, which you can see with her body. At the age of 39, she's still competing to be at the Olympics. She's had babies and she's still able to maintain and sustain her level. I admire people like this for maintaining and sustaining their status as legends and champions.
OC: Have you had the chance to meet Manny Pacquiao? I saw you with in a picture with the Eumir Marcial, another boxer who was looking to do well at the games.
HD: Yes, I met Senator Manny Pacquiao. At the Beijing 2008 Olympics when he was the flag bearer, which was my dream come true. That's also the time that I decided I want to compete in the next Olympics too, because I’ll know more about it. When I met him I got inspired. I forget what his advice was, but what I really admire is his continuous winning. It's hard to stay on top for so long. Right now, he's still playing and he's still winning. How does he do it? I really admire his discipline and the determination he has in his heart.
OC: You said that Beijing 2008 was your awareness Olympics. But you became the flag bearer at the London 2012 Games. What did it mean to you to be the flag bearer at that Olympic Games?
HD: Of course I was really proud. When I walked in there, it was like, “Wow, this is my proudest moment ever.” But at those Olympics I did not finish my lift (she slipped, and her clean and jerk was disqualified). But again, it was my proudest moment to qualify for those Games and be the flag bearer.
OC: Can you describe what is it like being an athlete, wearing the Filipino flag on your on your on your jersey, carrying the flag?
HD: It was like, “Wow, this is it, Philippines is in the Olympics.” I’m representing the people of the Philippines and I feel so proud as not everyone can compete in the Olympics, right? It's all the hard work. I was so proud to represent millions of Filipinos.
OC: After two Olympics competing in the 58kg category, you decided to switch weight class to 53kg for Rio 2016 and walked away with a medal. But was it a difficult decision to make before Rio?
HD: I think it was an opportunity for me because I got the knee injury in 2014. As an athlete, when you get injured, it's like end of your career and performance goes down. I got depressed. My coach was removed from the national team and I wasn't able to compete in the Asian Games at that time. So it was a really low moment.
But it was my breakthrough as well, because I met a lot of like sports science people who opened my mind in strength and conditioning. When I competed at 58 kilos, my food intake was all rubbish junk food. That's when I started to eat healthy. My body dropped (in weight), then my performance improved. When my weight was 56 kilos, my friend told me that at 53 kilos I would have more chance of winning the Olympics than at 58. Because there are heavier lifters at 58 that lift better numbers than me. So 53 would be more of an advantage for me.
I think the hardest thing about dropping weight is discipline in food. I love food, I really love food. Whenever I see cakes I want to eat. I whenever I see chocolates I want to eat. But if you’re dropping weight and you want to perform well in the Olympics, it's quite hard.
Every time I have a competition, it's super challenging. It's very hard. At the 2015 World Championships, I had to cut my hair just to make the weight. In weightlifting, we have to wait two hours before the competition and it’s very draining.
OC: But when it came to Rio 2016 in the 53kg class, you did it. You became the first woman from the Philippines to win an Olympic medal. Tell us about that.
HD: I wasn't expecting to win the silver medal. I thought I was going to win the bronze medal. I was really happy and praised God. Then suddenly I saw the Chinese weightlifter didn't finish the clean and jerk, and I was like, “Wow!” And I just started jumping. That was really an unexpected gift from God. If I could bring myself back there, my happiness would be huge.
OC: How did winning that medal change your life?
HD: Everyone who competes in Olympics wants to win a medal, but when I won silver I realised that I had become a public figure. Everyone was looking at me, and I realised that I have a responsibility to the Filipinos, and to be a good influence. So that's the power of being a Olympic medallist. You have the ability to influence the younger generation.
OC: Did it open more doors for you in terms of meeting different people? Were you on billboards?
HD: Yes. After Rio there were a lot of motorcades and I met a lot of people. Then there was a lot of opportunities for endorsements, and there was an opportunity that the government helps me now, then sponsors that are helping me towards Tokyo 2020. It's also an opportunity to increase more awareness about sport and weightlifting, because it’s my really big dream to have a lot more weightlifters after me.
OC: Is finding sufficient funding - that will enable you to pursue your dream as a weightlifter - a big challenge for you?
Yes. Because it’s new for the government. It's new for the Filipino people that someone who has done well in an Olympics is continuing their journey towards the next Olympics. I'm the only one doing it. I think some people don't understand how hard it is - the journey, the process, the preparation towards the Olympics - because they really don't understand that the level there is so high. I cannot do it alone and that's the thing that I do not like. I cannot make them understand that it's not that easy to win the gold medal in the Olympics. We need people. We need preparation. I need people behind me.
OC: The 53kg category at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics has been revised to 55kg. How do you feel about that?
HD: It took a while to catch up to my bigger competitors. But after one year, my numbers started increasing because it took time to master the technique. It takes time to be strong. It takes time to build the muscle. But my competitors still have an advantage over me at 55kg.
OC: At the 2019 Worlds you won a bronze medal in the 55kg. What did it mean to win a World Championship medal in your new weight class?
HD: Before that I had a lot of like challenges mentally. Because if I cannot make it at the new weight, I cannot qualify for the Olympics. And for me, winning a medal at the World Championships is really a big thing. It's one more step closer to the Olympics. I was able to improve my ranking.
OC: You started this season with a World Cup win in Roma. Do you feel confident at 55kg now?
HD: I feel like 55kg is a good weight for my body. I'm really confident that I can perform well, especially after winning in Roma, because that means I’m in the top three or two (in the world). I just really need to beat the Chinese athletes. I really need to strategise on how to be stronger than when I was at 53kg. It’s a challenging path but I know I can do it.
OC: What what would you say if some of your biggest challenges preparing for Tokyo 2020?
HD: I've been through a lot. One of the biggest challenges has been telling people how important it is to have a support system. People are criticising me saying it’s easy but, guess what, it's not easy.
I also have to sacrifice my schooling. I'm not done yet with my degree. I'm still studying, but I have to stop it because my coach told me, "No education now. You can always go back. But Olympics you only have every four years. You have to focus because you have the potential." So I decided to stop, but getting my degree is one of my dreams as well.
Preparation for the Olympics is hard: the mental part, the physical part, emotional part. And then COVID happened. I thought it would only be two more years until the Olympics, but that turned into three.
The other challenging thing is the lockdown here in Malaysia. We don’t know anything. I'm a Filipino. My coach is Chinese and the other coach is from Guam. So we don't know anything about Malaysia. And suddenly everything closes and we don't know what to do. We don’t know where we're going to train, where we're going to stay, where we're going to buy our food and everything.
But I'm still continuing this journey towards the Olympics because I believe that I can I can win. I believe that God has a plan for me that I believe that I will win at the Olympic Games for the Philippines.
OC: You mentioned that is one of your dreams to pursue a degree and you had to sacrifice it to pursue your Olympic dream. Tell us a little bit more about what this degree means to you?
HD: I really want the degree because I already have an Olympic medal. But for me, you need the degree with the Olympic medal for you to influence more people, and to have more opportunities after sport. I can play sport forever, and that’s why I need to study.
OC: What would it mean to you to win an Olympic gold medal?
HD: It would be a symbol of God and a symbol of my sacrifices in training and the people behind me. It’s also a symbol Filipinos can make it. We can win the gold medal at the Olympics. There's no doubt about it, we can win. It's inspirational for younger generations.
OC: Tokyo 2020 will be your fourth Olympic Games, will it also be your last?
HD: I hope so. Because I need life after sports. I don’t know what my body will say… "Oh, you need to rest. Your body cannot do it anymore." As you age, you lose your ability for heavy lifting.