TOKYO - Amid the highs and lows of Hidlyn Diaz's career, and through the emotional roller-coaster of the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, four people became constants in her life.
One was a Chinese coach with sage advice and unquestionable loyalty. Another a nutritionist who watched what Hidilyn consumed and served words of wisdom on the side. Then there was a strength and conditioning coach who became her source of strength in more ways than one. And finally, a sports psychologist who got her to believe she could do the impossible.
Individually, they were good at what they do. Together, they became known as Team HD. This is how Hidilyn herself called them. And in those long and lonely months of training in seclusion in Malaysia, before Tokyo, they became much more than a support system for Diaz. They became family.
"You can see the success that we have now with Hidilyn and we can attribute this to these four people," said Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella. "They sacrificed almost two years in Kuala Lumpur for this."
If you believe Hidilyn Diaz is a fairy tale about a Filipina with Herculean strength, who after being discovered in a poor neighborhood in faraway Zamboanga, moved on to become Olympic champion, then you're not seeing the big picture.
As talented and driven as Hidilyn was, she could not have gotten this far without the help of these four who, individually, began working with her in the odd years after the weightlifter finished with a silver medal at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, and who, as if providentially, banded as a team to take her to the finish line.
It all started with Gao Kaiwen, a respected coach in his home country, who is credited with overseeing the rise of a pair of Chinese champions: Chen Xiexia, gold medal winner at the 2008 Beijing Games in weightlifting’s 48-kilogram division; and Zhou Lulu, also a gold medal winner four years later at the 2012 London Games in weightlifting’s 75-kilogram division.
The Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) hired Coach Gao at the request of the country’s weightlifting association. With that, Gao took over the coaching reins from a "certain guy,” according to Puentevella, “who Hidilyn no longer wants to talk about."
Gao's arrival set off a chain of events that professionalized Hidilyn's training. Diaz added science to her program through Dr. Karen Trinidad, head of the PSC's sports psychology unit; Jeaneth Aro, a top nutritionist; and Julius Naranjo, a former national lifter from Guam who, after suffering a back injury, made the early transition to coaching.
"Coach Gao is the wise man na kailangan sa team. He is good in terms of his experience," says Trinidad, who is also a member of the UST faculty. "There's a certain foundation of stability with him. Kapag crucial na ang kailangan pag-uusapan, we would ask Coach Gao, like, 'What's your point of view regarding this?'"
Aro was brought in to give expert advice on Hidilyn's weight, a source of perennial anxiety for most athletes.
"Crucial si Mam Jeaneth,” Trinidad says, “kasi with Hidilyn, she gets anxious when kailangan n'yang magbawas ng timbang. So ang nangyayari, nagkukulong sa kwarto, or nagsa-sauna. Kapag nag-sauna ka, manghihina ka, yung stress mo tataas. So kailangan mo ng nutritionist kasi expert siya doon.”
Trinidad adds, "Mam Jeaneth is very good, alam niya the day before, dapat ganito na weight niya. Kunwari yung 55.1kg, 55.2, parang ako di ko maisip ‘yon, pero siya alam niya. Even the amount of water na iinumin. Ganoon siya ka-detailed."
In the case of Naranjo, his scope of work expanded and his influence grew, as he proved himself a key member of the team. And the personal relationship that developed between him and Hidilyn, swears Trinidad, never once got in the way of Hidilyn’s quest for gold.
"He's good at what he does as a strength and conditioning coach,” Trinidad elaborates. “Dapat andoon yung line between you as a coach and you as a boyfriend. And in fairness kay Julius, kapag training, training talaga."
Hidilyn's interaction with each of the four used to be compartmentalized, but the lines soon blurred as the four took on responsibilities beyond their job descriptions. Before long they had meshed into a collegial body, coming into their major decisions by voting. On the occasions when a tie needed to be broken, Hidilyn was asked to cast the vote.
With just over two months before the Olympics, Hidilyn suffered a setback. She had punched her ticket to Tokyo, but could only place fourth at the Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, with a 94kg snatch and a 114kg clean and jerk.
This proved to be a blessing in disguise. It gave Team HD the chance to take stock and reboot its program.
From there, Team HD, its every decision guided by science, hardly put a foot wrong. It plotted Hidilyn's Olympic preparation down to the minutest detail, from the playlist she would listen to in the bus on the way to the venue, to her routine on the morning of the championship, to just what she would wear in the finals.
Every first day of the week through the 16 months when she trained in Malaysia, with Covid-19 raging elsewhere, she was made to wear the exact shoes and exact blue uniform she was going to wear in the finals proper in Tokyo.
As Trinidad tells it, "Every Monday, we were already asking her to wear the uniform she was going to wear here [Tokyo]—the shoes, socks, pati [ayos ng] buhok. Why? For her to be comfortable, kasi minsan ang bagong uniform maluwag or masikip. So kung may adjustment that needs to be done, it's already done before the competition event."
Team HD also carefully picked the religious healing songs that Hidilyn listened to every day, and made the decision not to wean her from social media in the days leading to the competition, having seen how posting photos on her pages helped her relax, as long as she did not dwell on the comments.
Trinidad says they also made the decision to let the 30-year-old view the videos of her friend Margie Didal competing in skateboarding, if only to show Hidilyn the value of keeping cool under the most heightened of pressures.
At the same time, the concept of mental imagery was applied in the team’s decision to reach the venue hours in advance, to give Hidilyn the chance to become comfortable on the podium before the actual competition.
"We arrived there early. Sumakay kami ng bus ng 3:45 p.m., kahit na 5 p.m. pa ang weigh-in niya, para magkaroon ng chance na makita ang podium. Pinayagan namin kami," says Trinidad, describing how Hidilyn stood on the mat, simulating snatch and clean and jerk motions while the lights were still off.
Technique was Coach Gao's forte, but this was approached with input from Naranjo and Trinidad that took into account the principles of one motion that would eliminate self-doubt. The adjustment was not as easy as it sounds, because it required a subtle yet crucial change in Hidilyn's thought processes before and during every lift.
"One second of doubt in weightlifting, mawawala ang focus. Doon mo mararamdaman ang bigat ng binubuhat mo," Trinidad explains. "That's why we changed her thought process. Dati sinasabi niya — slow, and then fast. Kaya lang, as we do that, may one second of doubt dahil, slow tapos fast, may transition. And that one second of doubt is crucial.”
She sums up, "So we changed it to one motion," which explains the smooth strides and sure moves of Hidilyn in the historic finale when she hoisted a 127-kilogram barbell that won the gold medal.
Crucial decisions in strategy had to be made, particularly in the face of an opponent like Chinese world champion and record holder Liao Qiuyun, also the hands-down favorite to win the gold in weightlifting. Team HD hatched its strategy weeks in advance, finalizing this at a meeting in a small room inside the Athletes Village just days before the competition.
In that meeting, Coach Gao and Naranjo, armed with reams of information about the formidable Liao, provided the matrix of what Hidilyn needed to target in each of her six lifts in the finals.
Team HD knew what they were all up against. Hidilyn had never beaten Liao in any of their previous meetings. The Chinese girl has rarely missed a lift in any competition. To add to the mind games, one coach from China with a walkie-talkie in his hands, Hidilyn herself reveals, had his eyes glued on her the entire time backstage, reporting on her every move.
"Buti na lang, Coach Julius at Coach Gao really studied very well ‘yung kalaban, which is very crucial,” Trinidad says. “Alam mo yung maximum na kaya niyang buhatin. Of course, not the exact figure but ranging from her previous competition. But, of course, there's a plus-minus, but always within that range.
"The game plan talaga was, one, to secure a medal, in any color. Basta maka-secure muna siya ng medal. Tapos yung last two lifts, doon na maglalabanan. Kaya yung last two, yun na [nag-decide] sa silver and gold."
The gamesmanship started from the time Team HD declared Hidilyn's target for her first lift in the snatch. In consultation with Hidilyn, the team wrote down 91kg on the sheets, in an attempt to throw off the Chinese coaches, because the real plan was for Hidilyn to lift 94kg right away.
From that point on, the Chinese contingent was on the defensive.
"We had several meetings on what numbers to put on the board, kasi titingnan yon ng China," Trinidad reveals. "From the start, we knew already that Hids was going to lift 94kg, but sinulat namin 91kg. It was part of the strategy, kasi kung ano ilalagay mo doon, binabantayan na ng China 'yon."
Asked to explain the wisdom behind this decision, Trinidad elaborates: "Kasi, if linagay mo 94kg, [you send the message na], 'Malakas ito.' But if i-low profile mo ng 91kg, mas okay. E 95kg 'yung nilagay ng China, so nung nakita nila na 91kg ang sa atin, binabaan nila sa 92kg ang binuhat ni Liao.
"And then nung bumuhat ng 92kg yung China, bumuhat si Hids ng 95kg, so there was already an advantage to us."
In the heart-stopping, back-and-forth, what-you-can-do-I-can-do-better battle that played out as hard-rock music blared inside the half-empty Tokyo International Forum, that single gambit left the Chinese suddenly behind.
From that point on, it was down to Hidilyn and Hidilyn alone.
All she needed to do was lift 127kg in her third and final attempt at clean and jerk—and the gold was hers.
There was just one problem. "Yung 127kg, never pa niya nabuhat 'yon," Trinidad says.
The heaviest that Hidilyn ever lifted in training was 125kg. "Once," Trinidad adds.
But having dreamed of winning gold from the time she lifted those makeshift barbells at age 11, and chasing the gold through a record four Olympic appearances that saw her through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in an extraordinary career, Hidilyn was not going to be denied.
"That feeling was priceless," Trinidad says, recalling the glorious moment when Hidilyn lifted the 127-kilogram barbell over her head and then shouted for joy, knowing that she had just lifted the spirits of an entire nation that had waited almost a century for an Olympic gold medal.
Amid the euphoria, it was no wonder that Hidilyn's first order of business was to seek out Team HD.
"'Doc, hold this one, you deserve this,'" Hidilyn whispered to Trinidad, handing her the gold medal. "Sabi ko, mapakinggan ko lang ang national anthem, okay na."
Template for future champions
In the din of celebrations over a gold medal that alters Philippine sports history, Hidilyn was asked backstage what she wanted to tell millions of euphoric kababayans. Without a moment of hesitation, she let out a simple line.
"Kaya natin 'to!"
Hidilyn has shown we can do it. Her victory has shown how we can do it. And emerging as the most iimportant lesson is that, at the highest level of sports, the old mix alone of sheer talent, hard work, and trusted oido no longer cut it.
What does is the special combination of this: Gao's wizened advice born of experience; the science provided by Trinidad, Naranjo, and Aro; the team strategy that played out like a fascinating chess game on giant screens in the stadium; and the genuine talent and fighting spirit of Hidilyn.
This is what produced the country's first-ever Olympic champion.
Today, this template can be replicated, as Philippine sports officials aspire to find more Hidilyns from the ranks, both homegrown and raised overseas, and turn them into Olympic champions, a dream once deemed impossible until a Zamboanguena with unique gifts and an unshakeable spirit proved that it was, in reality, possible.
Against the world's best, anything less will not do.