Rio 2016: Hidilyn Diaz

Jane Bracher
Weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz of Zamboanga City has given up fast food and overcome injuries and a tough break-up for what she says will be her third and final Olympiad

MANILA, Philippines – Beads of sweat dotted her forehead. One drop traces down the side of her face as she scrolls through her smartphone, waiting for her turn on the interview chair. 

Fit and chiseled, Hidilyn Diaz, a short-haired, bespectacled athlete, appeared weary one humid night at a weightlifting room in Malate. Diaz is exhausted from a day of training, just another one on her road to the Rio Olympics – her third journey to the Games at just 25 years old. 

It’s been quite a ride for Diaz, a native of Zamboanga City, where the sport of weightlifting first piqued her interest. She saw her cousins lifting weights in 2002, her curiosity got the better of her, and off went her sporting career. 

Most have already heard the narrative: Diaz goes on as a wildcard entry in the 2008 Olympics, then finishes just above last place before making another run in the 2012 Olympics as the Philippine flag bearer. She still wound up in the lower half in a field of 19 competitors then. At the time she was unable to record an official lift in the clean and jerk part of the competition. 

(READ: Know the basics of Olympic weightlifting)

Her journey brings her to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in 2016, for another shot at Olympics glory. Third time’s the charm, they say. 

TRAINING. Hidilyn Diaz trains for the Rio Olympics. Photo by Rappler

Sitting by the door of the gym, visibly trying to fight off drowsiness, Diaz already knows the drill. The media attention is something she dealt with before. Though she never gets used to it, she admitted. 

The media interviews delayed her bedtime by over an hour, and she was due for swimming training the next day. But she remained gracious and cheerful, ever smiling and open to telling her story – her hopes, dreams, and even her frustrations.

In this small moment, Diaz shows her character – the kind born only from trying times.

IN COMPETITION. A look at Hidilyn Diaz during the World Weightlifting Championships in 2015. EPA/LARRY W. SMITH

A pivotal year 

A long list of accomplishments trailing her, Diaz knows the face of victory quite well. But she has also met cruel adversity. 

2014, Diaz said, was the year her life changed. 

Losing her trusted coach, an injury, and a tough break-up led to a string of subpar performances for the Filipino athlete. She missed the Asian Games and the World Weightlifting Championships that year.

It was the worst year of her life, she reflected, and until now, has no idea how she pulled through.

Perhaps there was wisdom from Diaz’s past experiences, handling the heartache of missing her family during long stretches away from home in her youth while she built her weightlifting career.

Either way, Diaz is now standing on the other side of those past struggles, and she is unafraid to share that as part of her story. Diaz conquered that chapter, likely by God and by prayers, she thought, and she’s become better for it. 

A third chance 

Somewhere in the mess of a year’s worth of tough luck, Diaz found light and a new direction – one that took her down the path to a clean slate and an all-new opportunity at the world’s most prestigious sporting event. 

Diaz took a long hard look at her life and decided she’d finally give up eating food from McDonald’s – along with other junk food and bad habits that did not help her weightlifting career. 

Junk food was so good, she confessed, but a realization dawned upon her: it was bad for her. 

That realization came with a brand new, more open mind. For afters years of rejecting sports science and how it could help her become a better athlete, Diaz finally embraced the diet, the nutrition plan, and the healthy daily habits. 

Since 2015, she has gotten herself a nutritionist and someone who delivers her proper food every day. She’s also opened herself up to more people – instead of just her one coach – helping her become better. She now does strength and conditioning as well as rehab as she drops body weight but gains strength the right way. 

‘Gusto ko talaga manalo. Gusto ko ito na yung last ko. Kung last ko man, gusto ko na maganda ang kalalabasan ng laro ko. Gusto ko rin magbigay ng karangalan sa Pilipinas.’

– Hidilyn Diaz

 

As she opened herself up to the entire process, Diaz also saw the possibilities. 

Diaz appears confident and sure of herself. She observed how she is much more careful now, more calculating, and certainly more prepared than her past two Olympic forays.

Ask her the difference between her past Olympic participations and this upcoming third one in August, Diaz will stress it’s her thorough preparation, coupled with, finally, a newly acquired habit of stretching after training. 

Included in her Olympic preparation is nearly a month-long training camp in China and meticulously planned practice sessions throughout each week in varying degrees of difficulty.

This is Diaz’s third shot at marching into history and ending the Philippines’ 20-year medal drought. Everything she’s done up to this point is in preparation for Rio. She won’t be caught unguarded like a deer in the headlights again, as in 2008, or narrow-minded like in 2012. 

This time, in 2016, a tried and tested, far more mature Diaz will face the world. 

A life beyond weightlifting 

As far as the near future is concerned, Diaz sees Rio as her last Olympic stand. For her, it’s now or never. Whatever the result may be, she’ll be at peace knowing she did her best. 

Beyond Rio, Diaz is looking forward to Missouri in the United States, where she hopes to fulfill one of her dreams that took a backseat to her weightlifting path – finishing school.

Studies was one of the big things Diaz had to sacrifice in pursuit of her sports dreams. She found it difficult to fit in school time with weightlifting time, and she was forced to stop from her Computer Science degree. On top of scheduling conflicts, Diaz was more concerned she was not giving school her best shot. Diaz always wants to give it her best shot. 

After the Olympics, a scholarship at Lindenwood University in Missouri awaits Diaz. She will earn her degree as a student-athlete, though with much more emphasis on the student part. 

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After getting her degree, Diaz plans on expanding the gym she built back home, where she encourages kids to get into weightlifting. With the Exercise Science degree she aims to get, she hopes to become a coach and bring about change to the Philippine sports landscape and make life a little easier for athletes of the future.

The dream, she mused, is to see all athletes able to compete internationally and bring home as many medals as possible. 

Her family, though, will be a priority. As the breadwinner, being the 5th among 6 children, she wants to provide a better life for her siblings, who are mostly tricycle drivers, as well as her mother. 

Diaz was excited as she shared her plans for going back to college. She’s eager at the prospect of leaving the Air Force, a job she took to earn a stable living to help support her life and family, realizing sports isn’t always going to be there.

She’s had enough of this life, she admitted, and as a single 20-something, is raring to see what else is out there. Here was a hard-fighting athlete, toughened up by time and experience, who knows that there is plenty more to life than sports, and she wants to explore them all. 

——

Hidilyn Diaz was exhausted one humid night in Malate. Yet there is an air of confidence in her despite her tired body as she smiled and graciously answered every question and posed for every shot. She’s been here before. 

This is her third time fulfilling pre-Olympics duties, from media obligations to rigorous months-long trainings. But this time, she knows something is different. For one, she said, she is very determined to win. For another, she is treating this as her last.

MORE PREPARED. Hidilyn Diaz says she is more prepared for her third Olympics run. Photo by Rappler

She changed her old ways on her road to Rio, she believes she did it right and she did it better this time. The expectations are beyond her control now. 

In 2016, Hidilyn Diaz may finally break through and go down in Philippine sports lore for generations to come, or she may lose again for the third time. 

No matter the outcome, Hidilyn Diaz, all barely 5 feet of her, will lift that barbell – bearing the weight of her hopes and dreams – with everything she has. – Rappler.com

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