Hidilyn Diaz: Can this hardworking woman win her country's first ever Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020?

The first ever female Olympic medallist from the Philippines has had a roller-coaster ride to Tokyo 2020, now she's more determined than ever to rewrite history - again

9 min By Ken Browne
Silver medalist, Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines celebrates on the podium after the Women's 53kg Group A weightlifting contest on Day 2 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Riocentro - Pavilion 2 on August 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)

The Philippines has never won an Olympic gold medal but Hidilyn Diaz is ready to rip up the history books at Tokyo 2020.

At Rio 2016, Diaz won her country's first Olympic medal by a woman, taking silver in the -53kg weightlifting final after a dramatic finish.

The Japan Games will be her fourth Olympics in a row and she is out to perform weightlifting alchemy by converting that silver into Tokyo 2020 gold.

But real Olympic magic is made of talent, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication, and it's been a rocky road to Tokyo for the Philippine star.

In June 2019 the weightlifter went public with a plea for financial support, and life right now is train, eat, compete, repeat.

She refuses to quit.

Now competing at 55kg, her first gold medal in the Southeast Asian Games came in December 2019 in front of an adoring home crowd, and expectation for Tokyo is grew louder again when she won three gold medals at the Weightlifting World Cup event in Rome, Italy, at the end of January 2020.

The girl from Mindanao, born to a family of six siblings, may deliver one of Tokyo's most memorable tales.

"Fight for your dreams"

Born the fifth of six children in Mampang village near Zamboanga city on the Mindanao peninsula in southern Philippines, becoming Olympic champion seemed a distant dream.

While still at school Hidilyn would go with her father Eduardo on his tricycle to help sell vegetables and fish on the street or at the local market.

Many nights rice mixed with soy sauce was all the family had to eat.

Sport wasn't just a pastime for a young Hidilyn Diaz, it was a path to a better life.

As a young girl she wanted to work in a bank to help her mother with money worries.

"We were poor back then," she told ESPN5 Philippines in December 2019.

"When I was a kid, I told her I wanted to work in a bank and count money. Then eventually get married and raise a kid. The thought of winning in the Olympics never entered my mind."

Introduced to weightlifting by her cousin, Catalino Diaz Jr, the little girl who would become a national icon started lifting weights made from plastic pipes and homemade concrete weights cast in old tin cans.

When she was 11, the Filipina was given a barbell to train with after a local weightlifting competition, and she practised so hard that she wore it out, breaking the bar from overuse.

But people and clubs noticed her dedication and donated more bars to the girl who loved to lift as she became a frequent fixture at every competition she could enter.

Soon passion became vocation and Diaz found the only person to have ever competed in weightlifting for the Philippines to guide her: Ramon Solis.

He became the first ever Filipino weightlifter at Seoul 1988.

"Challenges are just part of life. Time will come when you just want to give up but you need to fight for your dreams." - Hidilyn Diaz on daytime TV show ASAP

Beijing 2008: Beginning to believe

At just 17 years of age Hidilyn was chosen as a wild card entry to represent the Philippines and had her first glimpse at what it takes to be an Olympian at Beijing 2008.

Competing in the women's 58kg class, Diaz lifted 85kg in the snatch and 107kg in the clean and jerk for a 192kg total, breaking her own Philippine record set at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games.

Despite placing 11th out of 12 weightlifters, the promise in her was plain to see.

In Beijing, Diaz saw an Asian sweep of the podium:

Thailand's Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarakoon lifted an Olympic record 126kg clean and jerk to win gold, and South Korea's Yoon Jin-hee took home silver, with both standing on the podium. Raema Lisa Rumbewas from Indonesia was later awarded bronze after Belarus lifter Nastassia Novikava was found to be doping.

London 2012: DNF

At the 2012 Olympics three unsuccessful 118 kg clean and jerk attempts resulted in a DNF - did not finish - for the Filipina.

It only made her more determined and she made the decision to move from the 58kg weight category to 53kg.

That proved a turning point in her career; within the next four-year Olympic cycle the medals started coming and the wins mounted up.

In 2015 there was a gold at the Asian Championships in Phuket, Thailand in September. Then a first ever World Championships podium when she claimed bronze in Houston, Texas in November.

That guaranteed her a spot at the Rio 2016 Olympics, and everything was about to change.

Down but not out: Hidilyn Diaz falls while competing in the Women's 58kg Weightlifting at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 30, 2012. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Down but not out: Hidilyn Diaz falls while competing in the Women's 58kg Weightlifting at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 30, 2012. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Rio 2016: Hidilyn Diaz the hero

Four years after her London disappointment, she was back on her feet at the Rio 2016 Games, and set her sights on bronze.

Those in the know believed that the battle for gold was a two-horse race between Chinese-Taipei’s Hsu Shu-Ching and China’s Li Yajun.

Hidilyn believed it too.

“That’s all I wanted - a bronze medal. I would have been grateful with a bronze medal because that’s what we were targeting," she admitted.

And when Hsu and Li took a commanding lead after the snatch with scores of 101kg and 100kg, it looked like the predictions were right.

But in the clean and jerk, Diaz cleared 111kg on her first attempt, forcing Korea’s Yoon Jin Hee to at least match that.

It took Joon all three of her attempts to lift 111kg but the Filipina chalked up 112kg on her next lift to secure at least a podium for her country.

Hsu raised 112kg on her first lift, practically guaranteeing her gold, but China's Li hyper-extended her left elbow on a monster 123kg attempt.

The injury meant Li couldn't complete a single attempt in the clean and jerk and Diaz had won her country's first medal since Mansueto 'Onyok' Velasco won boxing silver at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

Diaz' victory was the first medal by a woman from her country in Olympic history.

More popular than Manny Pacquiao?

Hidilyn Diaz became a household name in the Philippines after Rio 2016 as her story of triumph in the face of adversity and financial struggle stood out in a country where more than 20 per cent of people live below the poverty line.

Ever humble, ever faithful, when asked if she realises that people put her in the same sentence as boxer Manny Pacquiao when they talk about the greatest Philippine athletes of all time, Diaz just keeps true to what got her where she is now:

"Honestly, I have no idea that people think I'm one of the most popular athletes in the Philippines."

"I'm just thankful to God that he gave me a chance to be a role model, for the youth to believe in the fact that Ate (a Tagalog term meaning "older sister") Hidilyn is a fighter, fighting for her dreams. Maybe God brought me here to inspire the youth to engage in sports and teach them the value of sports."

She hasn't forgotten where she comes from either, or the people who helped her get there.

"My father was a tricycle [rickshaw/tuk tuk] driver before, then he became a farmer and a fisherman. Now, thanks to weightlifting, our life in Zamboanga changed. I was able to buy land for my sibling and for my gym. I was able to help my family and kids who grew up without a home."

Her home town in Zamboanga has now become a beacon for young aspiring weightlifters, inspired by one of the country's most famous daughters.

The Hidilyn Diaz Weightlifting Gym allows paying users in during the morning, and then trains young athletes later in the day.

Living up to the hype

With Rio 2016 silver already the stuff of legend and those three gold medals at the Weightlifting World Cup event in Rome in January raising expectations even further, Diaz has a new problem: dealing with the pressure.

"It was a different story back in 2016 because no one expected that I would win," she explained.

"In 2020, everyone now believes we have a chance to win a medal in the Olympics, of course, the pressure and the expectations are high."

The star will be 29 at Tokyo 2020 and all that physical strain is taking its toll on her body too.

"After 2016 it was tough for me to maintain my power because I am getting older. My strength was going down instead of up. I needed help with my training. In 2016, I trained by myself. But for the 2020 Olympics, I need to be wise, because I want to win in Tokyo," she said.

"I need to prepare and formulate a strategy. I can't just go there to Japan and expect to win without doing anything."

"There are times when I want to quit, especially moments when I feel a lot of pain in my body." - Hidilyn Diaz

"Sometimes I question why it's so hard, why it's difficult to win in the Olympics, and why I have to push myself hard in training. Sometimes I question why I need to give everything to the country, if people are deserving of what I work hard for. I can retire and walk away, but if I do that, I'm showing the world that we Filipinos easily give up," she said.

The fighter in her won't let her walk away. A coaching switch from Antonio Agustin Jr to Kaiwen Gao was part of the process as Hidilyn continued towards her next goal.

"What keeps me going is my goal, my goal for the country. We all want to win a gold medal in the Olympics, and for how many years no one has done it yet?"

"In sports, it's not always miracles. Almost all the time, you have to work hard for it."

Hope of a nation

When the Philippines hosted the SEA Games in December 2019, the experienced competitor found herself wracked with nerves.

“I didn’t know how to handle the pressure and the expectations of the people,” an emotional Diaz shared after her total lift of 212kg, finishing first in both the snatch (93kg) and clean and jerk (119kg) win in front of the local crowd.

"This is a huge deal for me because my parents are here, and the nation watched me."

“I was nervous because a lot of people were watching. There were times when I doubted myself but you [Filipinos] were all there,” she said to huge acclaim.

Tokyo won't have that extra element of nerves but she will be carrying the hopes of a nation on her shoulders.

“This year has been so good to me and I’ve made large progress in terms of training and technique,” said Diaz.

“We’re in the right track for Tokyo 2020.”

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