Longtime mentor believes gold a realistic target for Hidilyn Diaz in 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Elbert Atilano remembers saying to his fellow coaches, 'Magkakaroon (na) tayo ng gold,' the first time he saw Hidilyn Diaz lift a barbell at age 10. Jaime Campos

WEIGHTLIFTING coach Elbert Atilano already knew great things were in store for Hidilyn Diaz the first time he saw her lift a barbell.

“Sabi ko sa mga coaches ko noon, magkakaroon (na) tayo ng Olympic gold,” said Atilano, looking back at the time she first saw Diaz give the sport a try at age 10 back in her native Zamboanga City.

For years now, Atilano has been running a successful weightlifting program at the Unibersidad de Zamboanga when Diaz’s cousin told him about this stocky beginner who has shown promise at such a young age.

“Actually, ‘yung family niya is a family of weightlifters. Athlete ko ‘yung pinsan niya, siya ‘yung nagdala sa akin. Sabi niya, meron daw siyang pinsan na magaling,” said Atilano, currently the vice president of the Philippine Weightlifting Federation.

Atilano recalled that the young Diaz was emotionally fragile, shy, and sensitive. But he also vividly remembered the raw strength and potential Diaz already had at that time.

“Tahimik, mahiyain, iyakin,” said Atilano. “Konting biro, umiiyak na.”

“Nung nakita ko, tinest ko, sabi ko sa sarili ko, ‘Eto ‘yung mag-go-gold sa atin,” he added.

Atilano’s expectations are now beginning to bear fruit as Diaz captured the silver medal in the Rio Olympic Games, ending a 20-year medal drought for the Philippines. Diaz has also shelved retirement plans and vowed to go for gold in the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

The veteran coach knew he was right about Diaz after the young weightlifter kept breaking national records, including one owned by Atilano's wife Cecil.

Her attitude toward training set Diaz apart from the rest, according to Atilano.

“’Yung asawa ko, siya ‘yung pinakamalakas noon. ‘Yun ang nagbigay inspirasyon sa kanya na mag-pursige. Kapag nakikita niya na malaki ang binubuhat nung asawa ko, sa umpisa nadi-discourage pero tine-take niya one day at a time. Eventually, nalagpasan na niya ‘yung record ng asawa ko. Nagtuluy-tuloy na,” said Atilano.

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Now that Diaz is aiming for the gold, Atilano believes that the goal is attainable especially since he has seen Diaz once hoist 225 kilograms - which by today's stanards is good for gold.

If she keeps at it, Atilano sees no reason why Diaz won't succeed four years from now.

“Kung iisipin mo ngayon na four years pa (bago ang Olympics), baka umayaw siya. Pero if she takes it one game at a time, lalaro sa SEA Games, Asian Games, World Championship, pag-gising niya Olympics na. May strategy on how to present the program,” said Atilano.

Follow the writer on Twitter: @reubensports