2016 SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR
Hidilyn Diaz
by Reuben Terrado

Carrying the hopes of an entire nation starved for Olympic glory on her shoulders, Hidilyn Diaz delivered a weightlifting silver medal from the Rio Games to become the Philippines' biggest sports hero of the year. Diaz is SPIN.ph's Sportsman of the Year for 2016, and this is her inspiring story

WHERE were you in the wee hours of August 8, 2016?

Well, some of us stayed up late, tired eyes fixed on the television set in the hope of witnessing history unfold, while those who were sound asleep woke up to a joyous celebration not seen since the epic fights of Manny Pacquiao during his peak years.

Thousands of miles away, Hidilyn Diaz bravely carried the weight of expectations of a nation starved for Olympic glory and ended the Philippines' 20-year medal drought by winning a silver medal in weightlifting in the Rio de Janeiro Games.

A star was born.

Soon after landing in Manila, Diaz was whisked off to Davao City where she was met by President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised P2 million as incentive. That was on top of the P5 million reward for an Olympic silver medalist under the government's Athletes Incentives Act.

But more than the financial windfall, the shy weightlifter from far Zamboanga became the unlikely face of the Filipino athlete - a defiant symbol that anyone can rise above the quagmire of corruption and politics in Philippine sports and stand proud at the highest levels.

Not bad for an athlete who was bullied as a kid and had to break free from the shackles of a deeply rooted tradition that women belong at home - and certainly shouldn't be doing some heavy lifting - so she can win her first weightlifting gold in the Batang Pinoy, but only because she was the only competitor.

This is Hidilyn Diaz, SPIN.ph's Sportsman of the Year for 2016. And this is her story.

Curious kid

Lifting came naturally for Diaz who, belonging to a family of eight residing in Barangay Mampang in Zamboanga City where running water wasn't available, was constantly given the errand of getting pale loads of water from a deep well pump nearby.

“Walang tubig sa amin, mapa-El Nino o wala, walang tubig. Kumukuha pa ako sa poso,” said Diaz laughing.

It was also easy for Diaz to get interested in weightlifting. Her cousins were already into it, and the then 11-year-old Diaz tried out the sport more out of curiosity - and partly to get her mind off neighborhood boys who she said kept picking on her.

“Ako ‘yung batang introvert. Kaya kung minsan, kapag binu-bully ako, umiiwas ako. Sa weightlifting ko binuhos ‘yung atensyon ko,” she said.

“Nung 2002, na-curious lang ako sa mga pinsan ko. Kasi nakita ko, masaya sila sa ginagawa nila. Na-engganyo ako sa kanila na pumasok sa weightlifting,” she recalled.

However, it wasn't easy to get her mother's approval.

“Nung una, takot ‘yung nanay ko. Siyempre, sa probinsya, iba ang paniniwala. (Kung babae ka) ikakasal ka at sa bahay ka lang. Nasa isip niya, baka walang magkagusto, magka-luslos, o maging macho.”

As it was, life wasn't easy for the Diaz brood. Her father was a farmer who later drove a tricycle to provide better for the family. On the side, he brought home fish and vegetable which a young Hidilyn peddled in the market.

“Mahirap ang buhay. Anim kaming magkakapatid, tapos mahirap lang. Dati, farmer ang tatay ko bago maging tricycle driver. May dala siyang isda, ako minsan ‘yung nagbebenta, naglalako ng isda,” she recalled.

But Hidilyn's life changed when she was spotted by a former weightlifter named Elbert Atilano, who almost instantly saw potential in this stocky girl who showed the correct technique the first time he saw her lift a heavy barbell over her head.

“Nung nakita ko (si Hidilyn), sabi ko, 'Eto ang magiging gold natin,'” Atilano recalled. “Sabi ko sa mga coaches ko, 2012 at 2016, may gold na tayo.”

Diaz remembered her first encounter with Atilano as if it was yesterday.

“Sinabihan na ako na may talent ako kasi nakita ‘yung build ko at ‘yung technique ko,” Diaz said. “Sinabi niya (Atilano) na may potential ako.”

Years later, when Diaz made her Olympic debut at the tender age of 17 as a wild card entry in the 2008 Beijing Games, everyone was surprised - except Atilano.

For the coach, Diaz merely fulfilled her destiny.

‘Anong Olympics?’

She got hooked to weightlifting before she could reach puberty, but Diaz never imagined this hobby would take her as far as the Olympics. In fact, she had no idea at that time what the Olympics was all about.

“Nung una, hindi ko alam kung ano ‘yung Olympics,” Diaz giggled. “Kinuha na lang ako, biglang sinabi na maglalaro ako sa Olympics.”

“Sabi ko, ‘Anong Olympics?'”

Diaz also fondly remembered her first-ever competition in weightlifting back the 2002 Batang Pinoy in Puerto Princesa. She won the gold not because of pure talent, but for the sheer lack of participants.

“Gold ako kasi walang kalaban,” Diaz said smiling.

Hallow as the victory may be, it served as the launch pad for a blossoming career. Just two years later, Diaz was good enough to be part of the national team pool. Then she got called up for the Asian Youth Championship, where she finished just a few places out of the podium.

By the time she competed in her second Olympics, much was already expected from Diaz - and with good reason. While she merely got a  ‘free pass’ to the Beijing Games, Diaz qualified on her merits for the 2012 Olympiad in London.

But unknown to many, Diaz was fighting a bigger battle from within. She had lost the fire to compete, and had lost her sense of purpose. It didn't help that she qualified for the London Olympics just two months before the actual competition. Emotionally and physically, she wasn't ready.

“Naging pangit,” Diaz admitted. “The whole journey, oo nag-set kami pero wala sa puso ko ‘yung goal. Si coach lang ang pumipilit sa akin. Nag-qualify ako pero two months before ng laro. ‘Yung preparasyon ko, hindi ganun kahaba,” she recalled.

“‘Yung mental toughness, wala talaga. ‘Yung expectation ng tao, pagdating sa platform, wala talaga. Hindi ko talaga pinag-trainingan. Hindi ako prepared,” Diaz added. “Ang nangyari, na-zero ako."

After going bust in London, things went downhill for Diaz that it drove her to the throes of quitting. Injuries took a toll on her performances, so much so that he failed to get a spot in the team to the 2014 Asian Games. Worse, her longtime coach Antonio Agustin also became collateral damage.

“Siya ‘yung naging tatay ko, guide ko, motivator ko,” said Diaz of Agustin. “Siya lahat kasi malayo ang tatay ko at pamilya ko. Ten years ko siya naging coach tapos biglang tinangggal dahil daw sa performance ko. So bine-blame sa akin. Hindi nila naisip na minsan ang atleta, nasa baba rin minsan.”

Just six years after her Olympic debut in Beijing, retirement suddenly became an option.

“Na-injured ako, natanggal coach ko. Politika,” said Diaz without elaborating. “Hindi ko na-meet ‘yung binigay nilang qualifying record, hindi nila ako pinalaro ng Asian Games, hindi ako nakapag-world championship,” she continued. “Ayoko na talaga.”

But like all great athletes before her, Diaz soon found a way to overcome adversity. The inspiration came from an unlikely source when she was stumbled on one of the weekly prayer gatherings of popular preacher Bo Sanchez.

“Parang umattend lang ako ng financial talk sa Makati para magbayad ng insurance tapos may nag-invite sa akin na pumunta sa Sunday sa PICC sa The Feast. Nung una, na-weirduhan ako pero pumupunta pa rin ako kasi maganda ‘yung mga topics,” she shared.

Along the way, it suddenly hit her.

“Tagos na tagos,” Diaz said, her eyes widening. “Naka-relate ako, hanggang sa nag-eenjoy na ako sa pagpunta. Mas naging close ako kay God. Mas pinaniwalaan ko sarili ko. Etong mga trials na ‘to, may purpose.”


Photography by Jerome Ascano

‘Whaaat!!!’

After rediscovering her purpose, Diaz wasted no time getting her act together, saying, "Humingi ako ng tulong pati sa POC (Philippine Olympic Committee), humingi ako ng tulong sa pagkain. Nagkaroon ako ng physical therapist at strength and conditioning coach,” Diaz said.

By 2015, Diaz, rejuvenated and motivated, captured a bronze medal in the World Championship in Houston, Texas by lifting a total of 213 kilograms - good enough to earn her a ticket to a third Olympic appearance in Rio de Janeiro.

At that time, she already knew that an Olympic medal was within reach. But there was just one problem: a shoulder injury.

“Naramdaman ko na may pag-asa pero kasi ‘yung sa Houston, doon din ako nagkaroon ng injury sa shoulder. Sobrang sakit talaga pero mabuti na lang naging maganda ang kalabasan,” said Diaz.

That injury persisted until the days leading to the Rio Olympics, but there was no turning back.

“Eto ‘yung pinakamataas na competition. Hindi ka makakapasok kung wala ka sa quota. The best of the best nandito sa Olympics," she said. "Pag tapak mo pa lang sa Olympic Village, dun mo masasabi talaga na nakarating ka na dito. Lahat ng atleta, gusto talagang makaapak sa Olympics.”

At the Riocentro Pavilion 2 where the weightlifting competition was held, Diaz was still bothered by the injury as she struggled in the snatch, lifting only 88 kilograms - a good 12 kgs. behind pace-setter Hsu Shu-ching of Chinese Taipei.

Just like the two previous Olympics, the 25-year old was once again seeing her chance fade away. But she didn't lose hope, only because her favorite clean and jerk event was still to come.

“Hindi maganda ‘yung snatch ko dahil sa injury ko. Talagang may questions ako sa snatch. Masakit pero kaya ko sa clean and jerk. Mas mataas ang nabubuhat ko dun,” she explained.

True enough, she fared better in the clean and jerk. She lifted 112 kgs. to end up with a total of 200 kgs. and surpass the 199 of Korea’s Yoon Jin Hee, assuring herself of a podium finish.

Diaz already had a wide smile on her face knowing she had won a medal, but more good news came her way. Heavy favorite Li Yajun failed in all her attempts in the clean and jerk. Within minutes, Diaz' guaranteed bronze had turned into silver - the first by a Filipina, and the country's first outside boxing.

“Sa totoo lang, hindi ko alam na na-zero siya,” Diaz recalled. “Masaya na ako sa bronze. Nagpe-praise na ako kay God. Tapos nakita ko na lang, tumatalon na ‘yung Korea. Sabi ko, ‘Bakit siya nagsasaya eh fourth lang siya?”

“Sinabi niya sa akin, ‘You are second.’ Sabi ko, ‘Whaaat!’" Diaz said. "Kakaibang experience talaga."

‘Aiming high’

In between smiles and poses during a recent photo shoot at the rundown weightlifting gym inside the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, Diaz supervised a training session for an aspiring weightlifter, giving instructions in the Chavacano dialect to better connect with the girl.

That SPIN.ph photo shoot wasn’t the first for Diaz since her Rio feat, and it definitely won’t be her last. She has landed endorsement deals left and right and continues to be showered with incentives by a grateful nation, including a house and lot in Clark that was a gift from one sponsor.

Another incentive has allowed Diaz to pursue her dream of going back to school while the first thing she spent for from her winnings was a tour for her parents.

“Nag-travel sila. Pina-experience ko ‘yung makasakay sila sa eroplano at makapasyal. Matanda na sila, ‘yung material things wala na. Gusto ko ma-experience nila ‘yung nature, makakita sila ng iba’t ibang culture. Naging busy ako pero plano ko na more travel para sa kanila,” said Diaz.

Her life may have completely changed, but Diaz assured she won't be going as far as to follow the career path of Olympic heroes before him like 1996 Atlanta Olympics silver madalist, Mansueto 'Onyok' Velasco, saying showbusiness is simply not her cup of tea.

“Walang pag-aartista,” assured Diaz. “Hindi ko rin kaya kasi mag-aaral ako, nasa military ako, tapos nasa training ako. Paano ko ididivide ang katawan ko sa ganung responsibilidad?”

What she wants to do is to give back to a sport that has brought her fame and fortune she never even imagined. 

“Nagiging kilala na ang weightlifting. More opportunities, more responsibility. ‘Yung pagkapanalo ko, hindi puwedeng mag-stop na lang ako. Kailangan ko i-spread ang weightlifting sa Pilipinas at magkaroon pa ng awareness,” she said.

But a bigger goal is to deal with some unfinished business. She has brought back former coach Agustin to her team and resumed her training just months after her Rio success, her sights firmly fixed on winning the country's first-ever Olympic gold medal three years from now in Tokyo.

“Gusto ko rin mag-aim high. As an athlete, hindi ka dapat makuntento,” she said.