Hidilyn Diaz

Meet Team HD: The people behind Olympic champion Hidilyn Diaz

Delfin Dioquino
Meet Team HD: The people behind Olympic champion Hidilyn Diaz

WINNING TEAM. Team HD is composed of (from left) Julius Naranjo, Jeaneth Aro, Hidilyn Diaz, Karen Trinidad, and Kaiwen Gao.

Julius Naranjo Instagram page

While it is Hidilyn Diaz who ended the Philippines' near century-long quest for an Olympic gold, she had Team HD who put her in a position to win

It takes a village to win an Olympic gold medal.

Hidilyn Diaz highlighted the need to surround athletes with the best people as she ended the Philippines’ near century-long quest for an Olympic gold in Tokyo, Japan with the help of Team HD.

While it was Diaz who ultimately lifted an Olympic record total of 224kg in the inaugural women’s 55kg event, she had an entire crew who put her in a position to win.

Meet the members of Team HD:

Gao Kaiwen – head coach

After a silver-medal finish in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, Diaz knew she had to take her game to the next level.

This is where Chinese coach Gao came in.

Gao, who trained two former Chinese Olympic gold medalists Zhou Lulu and Chen Xiexia, started working with Diaz just before her breakthrough win in the 2018 Asian Games.

Diaz credited Gao for her improved technique as she managed to lift heavier weights.

Picture this: Diaz captured the women’s 53kg gold medal in the Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia with 92kg on the snatch and 115kg on the clean and jerk for a total lift of 207kg.

In the inaugural women’s 55kg event in Tokyo, Diaz cleared 97kg on the snatch and 127kg – a weight she had never lifted – in the clean and jerk for an Olympic record of 224kg.

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Just like any other athlete-coach relationship, Gao and Diaz had their fair share of problems, particularly the language barrier.

“He said that his English is not that good and communicating was extremely difficult,”a translator said of what Gao explained on the Level Up Exclusives program of Radyo Katipunan.

Gao proved to be a loyal coach as he never left Diaz when they got stranded in Malaysia for more than a year due to the pandemic and never tipped off the Chinese weightlifting team in Tokyo of how strong the Filipina is.

This paved the way for Diaz to beat world record holder Liao Qiuyun of China by a single kilogram for the gold.

“Getting this gold is not easy. It was very difficult. Winning it is pride not only for her but for the entire country,” Gao said.

Julius Naranjo – strength and conditioning coach

Naranjo and Diaz first started off as friends after meeting at a weightlifting tournament in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan in 2017.

Naranjo, a Guamanian who has Filipino and Japanese roots, is also a weightlifter who had represented Guam internationally.

Eventually, they developed a romantic relationship as Naranjo – who took up Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science in Guam – worked with Diaz as her strength and conditioning coach.

“I did not believe in his training at first. It took nine months before I believed that he was good. I saw the results and I saw that I was performing well,” Diaz said in Filipino on the Headstart program of ANC.

When it comes to weightlifting, though, Naranjo keeps it professional.

“I think in any case or scenario, it is never easy to coach or work with someone that you’re in a relationship with. But what it takes is a lot of patience, understanding, and looking at the goal at hand,” Naranjo said.

“Sometimes we forget it because we’re so comfortable working with each other but it takes a lot of sacrifice on my end to understand that this is not my show. This is hers.”

Diaz called Naranjo as the “police” as he would send pictures of what she eats to sports nutritionist Jeaneth Aro and update sports psychologist Karen Trinidad of her progress in training.

“I’m thankful that I have a coach, and at the same time, partner who understands me and pushes me so that I can reach my dream, our dream as a team,” Diaz said.

Jeaneth Aro – sports nutritionist

Aro is no stranger in local sports circles.

She is, after all, the nutritionist of several Filipino athletes like International Boxing Federation super flyweight champion Jerwin Ancajas, undefeated boxer Mark Magsayo, and golfer Miguel Tabuena.

The national teams of taekwondo and boxing, which will end the Tokyo Olympics with a three-medal haul, have also tapped her services.

As a member of Team HD, Aro is tasked to ensure that Diaz eats right to maintain an optimum performance.

But Aro does not restrict Diaz from eating what she likes, acknowledging that the weightlifter is eventually willing to make sacrifices in her quest for Olympic glory.

“There was no fear in that professional relationship. I made sure that I will get her trust because I know trust is the primary factor in terms of compliance among elite level athletes,” Aro said.

“No one can ever tell them what to do and what not to do. We get their trust and make them do the things that we want them to do because they want to, not because they fear us as their coaches.”

Even days before Diaz saw action in Tokyo, Aro asked her what she wanted from the assortment of cuisine in the Olympic Village Dining Hall which were not included in her diet plan.

Diaz, a fan of Japanese food, opted for sushi and noodles.

“I want to make sure that I will give her the food that she craves for but the [nutritional value] is still there,” said Aro.

Aro was there during the competition as she went beyond her job by assisting Diaz with whatever she needed, like putting a towel on her back to keep her warm – an act that may seem trivial but contributed to her victory.

“Every second that passes that we are not able to give athletes what they need can easily create distraction,” Aro said.

Karen Trinidad – sports psychologist

It was not only her strength that Diaz needed to build but also her mental fortitude.

Diaz has been vocal about her bouts with self-doubt going into the Olympics, but she was able to overcome this through the help of Trinidad, who has been working with the Philippine Sports Commission since 2008.

“Even if she is strong physically and technically, but if the psychological aspect is not good – the holistic part usually gets neglected – she will fall apart,” Trinidad said.

“There should be balance in everything.”

A sound mind is what Diaz lacked during the Asian Weightlifting Championships last year in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where she finished at fourth in the women’s 55kg class.

“I realized that I really need mental preparation not only when I want. All athletes need mental preparation before competition,” Diaz said.

Since then, Diaz regularly sought the advice of Trinidad, who also played a key role in helping the Filipina champion manage her mental health as she got stuck in Malaysia while gearing up for the Olympics.

Whenever Diaz questions her capabilities, Trinidad reminds her to go back to her training – that she put in the necessary work for her to be able to achieve her goals.

“You really have to believe,” Trinidad said.

To ease Diaz of the pressure in the run-up to her competition, Trinidad made her watch the women’s skateboarding event that saw Margielyn Didal win the hearts of fans worldwide due to her bubbly personality.

“Even if [Didal] fell, she would stand up and she would be smiling. She was enjoying. It feels different when you’re enjoying what you’re doing,” Trinidad said.

That tactic seemed to work wonders for Diaz as she flashed a bright smile even when she failed to clear 99kg on her final snatch attempt.

Diaz also had a calm demeanor when she approached the platform to lift an Olympic record 127kg on her final clean and jerk try, letting out her emotions only after securing the victory.

“You need people behind you to win in the Olympics,” Diaz said.

For me, for Team HD, we’ll always look back sa mga pinagdaanan namin. Hindi naging madali, may mga doubts noong start ng journey, pero hindi kami nag-give up,” Diaz said in a four-part documentary Let’s Go HD! on the  Kick-Start Coffee Brewed Awakening Facebook page.

(For me, for Team HD, we’ll always look back at what we went through. It wasn’t easy, there were doubts at the start of the journey, but we didn’t give up.)

Of course hindi makakalimutan yung saya noong nanalo na, pero yung ginawa naming paghahanda ng ilang taon, hindi ko makakalimutan talaga. Tapos nanalo ako ng gold medal – ito ang naging bunga ng pagod, hirap, at sakripisyo para sa bayan.”

(Of course we won’t forget the joy of winning, but the training we did for several years, I won’t forget that. Then I won a gold – it’s the fruit of all the hard work, struggles, and sacrifice for the country.) – Rappler.com

Delfin Dioquino

Delfin Dioquino dreamt of being a PBA player, but he did not have the skills to make it. So he pursued the next best thing to being an athlete – to write about them. He took up journalism at the University of Santo Tomas and joined Rappler as soon as he graduated in 2017.