MANILA, Philippines – Philippine sports lost a legend as athletics icon Lydia de Vega died on Wednesday, August 11, after a four-year cancer battle.
Once touted as Asia’s sprint queen, De Vega – fondly called Diay – helped put the country in the athletics map following her stellar international exploits that will forever be etched in Philippine sports lore.
Here are some fast facts about De Vega:
De Vega did not earn the status of Asia’s fastest woman for nothing.
Throughout her storied career, she bagged 15 golds, 6 silvers, and 3 bronzes for a total of 24 medals in international competitions, namely the Asian Athletics Championships, Asian Games, and Southeast Asian Games.
De Vega participated in various events, including the 200m, 400m, and 4×400 races.
But it was in the 100m dash where she shone the brightest, topping the event in the 1982 and 1986 Asian Games and 1983 and 1987 Asian Athletics Championships to earn the distinction as the continental sprint queen.
Her national record in 100m of 11.28 seconds stood for more than three decades before Filipino-American Kristina Knott shattered it in 2020.
In an impressive display of her athletic prowess, De Vega even won a long jump gold in the 1987 SEA Games to go with the 100m and 200m titles she captured in that edition of the biennial meet.
Undoubtedly the brightest athletics star in the 1980s, De Vega also saw action in the 1984 Los Angeles and 1988 Seoul Olympics.
De Vega paired her unmatched speed with remarkable longevity.
Even when she took a hiatus from 1989 to 1991, De Vega looked like she hardly lost a step as she claimed two more golds in the 100m and 200m events in the 1993 SEA Games before she retired the following year.
Her unparalleled success allowed her to secure a spot in the Philippine Sports Hall of Fame, where De Vega was inducted in 2018, the same year she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It was not easy being an athlete, it was not easy to win,” De Vega said in Filipino during her Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
“It was not easy doing all the things that served as the reason for me to be one of the distinguished athletes who are given this honor. I’m happy to be part of the Hall of Fame.”
Lydia first trained under the tutelage of her father and coach Francisco “Tatang” de Vega.
A former policeman, Tatang earned a reputation as a strict and controlling mentor – sometimes even cruel – who made Lydia undergo intense training, which eventually shaped her into becoming a champion.
When Tatang died in 2010, Lydia admitted in his wake that there were times she questioned why she chose track and field as her father pushed her to her physical limits.
But as she looked back on her career, Lydia credited Tatang for her accomplishments.
“Without Tatang, there would be no Lydia de Vega,” she said in Filipino. “Tatang is the best track and field coach this country has ever had.”
Sports seem to run in the De Vegas’ bloods as Stephanie Mercado-de Koenigswarter, one of the three children of Lydia with husband Paul Mercado, went on to become a volleyball player.
Like her mother, Stephanie proved to be a winner as she won three UAAP championships with the La Salle Lady Spikers.
Stephanie, nicknamed “Paneng,” also played professionally with the Cignal HD Spikers and Petro Gazz Angels.
While the De Vega family enjoyed sporting success, they also had their share of tragedy.
Lydia’s son, John Michael, died in a road accident in 2001 when he was four.
De Vega enjoyed success outside athletics as she dabbled in media and politics.
In 1982, De Vega portrayed herself in Medalyang Ginto, a movie about her life that detailed her rise into becoming an international champion.
De Vega starred with Tony Santos and Perla Bautista, who played her parents.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, De Vega co-hosted Double Team, a weekly sports program on IBC 13.
She also served as councilor of her native Meycauayan town in Bulacan.
Riding off into the sunset
De Vega didn’t fully retire from the sport as she eventually pursued a coaching career in Singapore.
Choosing to stay low-key, her last public appearance came in the 2019 SEA Games, where De Vega served as one of the flag bearers of the SEA Games Federation flag in the opening ceremony at the Philippine Arena.
There, she joined her fellow Filipino legends Akiko Thomson, Eric Buhain, Alvin Patrimonio, Bong Coo, Efren “Bata” Reyes, Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco, and Rafael “Paeng” Nepomuceno.
Flashing her bright, infectious smile, it was still kept secret from the public at that time that De Vega was already diagnosed with cancer.
It was only in July 2022 when the De Vega family revealed her condition, and less than a month later, she died at the Makati Medical Center.
But even as De Vega passed away, she left a lasting legacy for generations of Filipino athletes.
Pole vault star EJ Obiena, whose international success is being compared to that of De Vega, previously said Asia’s former track queen served as an inspiration to his quest for glory.
“I am here today because I am standing on the shoulders of giants, the legends of Philippine athletics who paved a way for me, who brought attention and success to athletics,” said Obiena.
“I owe them a debt of gratitude. I thank them for the route they have forged for us competing today.” – Rappler.com