This photo of Hidilyn Diaz was taken at the Rio Olympics. Photo by ABAC CORDERO
MANILA, Philippines – It was hours before her flight back to Manila, and Hidilyn Diaz was only now packing her bags. Things have been a blur since she won the silver medal for the women’s 53-kilogram weightlifting competition at the Rio Olympics, and as we called her on the phone, distracting her from her luggage, we could hear the strain of a hectic schedule in her voice.
“Gusto ko makita ang nanay ko at tatay ko,” she says when we ask her what she looks forward to most about coming home. “Hindi ko pa sila natawagan. Na-message ko palang sila sa Facebook. Mabilis po ang mga bagay-bagay kaya wala akong time.”
Suddenly, Hidi’s voice cracks. In the moment, we thought it was a choppy signal, but when we played back our recording, we heard a swell of emotions. Hidi had dedicated her medal to her mother Emelita, who has prayed for her during every single one of her competitions. And it was her family that got her into weightlifting in the first place.
Hidilyn was born into humble beginnings in Mambang, Zamboanga, an eager child who at the age of 11, saw her cousins lift weights and was entranced. Lifting came naturally to her, as she would lug five-gallon containers on both hands for her family to cook and bathe with.
At this early age, she exhibited the drive that got her into the Olympics, experimenting with barbels heavier than herself. Soon, the sport was giving her meager scholarships and allowances. “Yun pa lang, sir, napamahal na rin ako sa weightlifting,” she narrates to us. She had found her vocation.
It wasn’t until 2008, however, that Hidilyn’s Olympic journey began. She was thrust into the Beijing games as a wildcard, not knowing what it all meant. “Si Coach Tony (Agustin) ko dati, sabi niya, ‘Alam mo, pangarap ko lang makalaro sa Olympics.’ Sabi ko, ‘Bakit ba malaking bagay ang Olympics?’”
At 17 years old and lost in the fray of her first games, Hidi finished second from last place. She even failed to meet her personal goal. “Sige, try natin sa London,” she told her coach, almost happy-go-luckily. Only four years later, when that, too, ended in failure, did she decide it was time to shape up.
“Sa London, naging pangit ang kinalabasan ng laro ko. Na-zero ako. Frustrated ako. So sabi ko, ‘Sige, 2016 babawi ako. Hindi na ako ma-zezero.’” The Olympic dream was now her own.
“Pero hindi ko pinangarap yung medalya. Alam kong imposible manalo,” Hidi adds quickly, bringing our conversation back to this year’s games.
“Ano yung pinangarap nyo?” we ask.
“Makapaglaro lang. Kasi alam ko talagang imposible. Dati alam kong imposible ito, pero nagawa ko pala. Hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala.”
This part of the conversation intrigues us. Why does someone push on in search of a goal she thinks is impossible? Where does this sort of Quixotic passion come from? We pose these questions to Hidi, and she pauses to think.
“Ito lang ang sports na alam ko,” she answers. “Every time na nakikita ko yung bar, parang kilala ko ang sarili ko. Ito yung naging identity ko.”
A New Identity
Now, at 25 years old, Hidilyn Diaz has been identified as many things. She has called herself a daughter, the breadwinner of a family of eight. She has called herself an athlete, one that trains three times a day, six days a week. She has even called herself a failure. But on Aug. 7 in Rio de Janeiro, Hidi became something else: The Filipino who broke our country’s 20-year Olympic drought, and the first Pinay to win an Olympic medal. It is this identity that she will carry for the rest of her life. Her Olympic dream is now the Filipino people’s.
A hero’s welcome greeted Hidi when she flew home this week. As of press time, she was slated to fly directly to Davao and meet President Rodrigo Duterte. A five-million peso prize and other benefits are also hers, according to law. It seems incredible that she now has the attention of this country. But that, perhaps, is the magic of sports.
“Sa last administrations, hindi lang talaga sila concerned masyado sa atleta. Pero simple lang ang gusto namin — makaramdam na may nagtitiwala at nagcacare. Ang katumbas nun? Dito sa sports nakikita kung gaano kalakas ang isang bansa. Para sakin, pinapakita ko lang sa buong mundo na malakas tayong mga Pinoy. Kaya nating lumaban,” she says. Her voice does not waiver as she says this.
We end our phone call with Hidi by asking her what she plans to do next. She responded that an athlete’s life is not forever, and so with her winnings, she is going to build a gym in her hometown. “Kailangan ko din ipasa sa susunod na henerasyon,” she says.
We’ve wondered what sets Olympians apart from other mortals, and that last quote gives us a hint of the answer. Hidi’s strength and conditioning coach Jay Futalan says that weightlifting is like defying gravity. It tests the limits of human power, grace, and precision. Perhaps this is what makes Hidi an extraordinary person — that what’s said about weightlifting can also be said about her outside of the Olympic arena. Here is Hidilyn Diaz: the strong, graceful Filipina helping her country defy gravity.