When Zamboanga councilor and coach Elbert Atilano first spotted Hidilyn Diaz, he saw a winner.
“Visia kamo conese cay este dale canaton medal," Atilano told Allen Jay Diaz, Hidilyn's cousin. (Look after her carefully because she will be the one to give us a medal.)
A seasoned coach, Atilano considered Hidilyn’s physical structure. Chubby and well-built at 11 years old, he could visualize her carrying the needed weights to victory.
What struck Atilano most, however, was Diaz’s persistence and focus.
She would wash jeepneys just to raise transportation money to take her to the gym.
Diaz’s humble beginnings is the stuff star athletes’ real life tales are made of.
Diaz, now referred to as ija de Zamboanga (daughter of Zamboanga), grew up in a humble home in Barangay Mampang, a rather bucolic Zamboanga village almost 10 kilometers away from the city proper.
The fifth child among six children of Eduardo, a tricycle driver and Emelita, a housewife, she would help her mother sell fish after her classes at a public elementary school.
In hindsight, the simple but difficult chore of carrying gallons of water from a well meters from her home may have just been the initial training that would take her to the Olympics.
Two of Hidilyn’s siblings are also athletes but both stopped to focus on earning a living, an option Hidilyn did not take.
“Pursiguido talaga siya sa buhay niya kaya ngayon nagtatamo siya ng karangalan,” said Ely May, Hidilyn’s sister-in-law. (She's really diligent, and now she's reaping the benefits and honors.)
Atilano, now a Zamboanga city councilor but also a mentor and former coach to Hidilyn, took the shy but promising athlete under his wing.
Starting his coaching career in 1981, Atilano only had one goal – to give Zamboanga its first Olympic gold medal.
He was there when Hidilyn won her first gold medal from the Asian Youth Junior Weightlifting Championships in South Korea.
Knowing the unpredictability in the arrival of government funds, he tapped private organizations to support the rising star.
Mentoring from afar due to his job as Zamboanga legislator, he organized a well-rounded team of experts to attend to Hidilyn’s physical, mental and psychological needs.
“I was after one thing – to hear the Philippine national anthem played during the Olympics,” Atilano said.
He said he taught Diaz to focus not on the money but on God and patriotism, a much-needed panacea amid the challenges of a vicious pandemic and economic uncertainty plaguing the country.