Diaz, conquering heroine, set to arrive from Tokyo

Published July 27, 2021, 7:19 PM

by Tito Talao

7-day quarantine at Sofitel for Team HD in compliance to travel protocol
Philippines’ Hidilyn Diaz competes in the women’s 55kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo International Forum in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP)

TOKYO — For Hidilyn Diaz, her fairy tale journey will not conclude with finding the Olympic pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Having imperiously brushed off suggestions that she was an over-the-hill weightlifter, and that her silver medal finish in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics was her swan song, Diaz categorically declared Tuesday that she wasn’t through spreading the gospel of her discipline and that she intends to continue competing, just hours after she delivered the Philippines’ first-ever gold in the Olympic Games.

With an incentive windfall expected to reach no less than P50 million — in cash and in kind — awaiting her victorious return from the XXXII Olympiad, it would not have been surprising for Diaz, who lifted an Olympic record 127 kilograms on her third attempt in the clean & jerk category to edge Chinese world record holder Qiuyun Liao by one kilogram for the 55kg championship, to announce her retirement.

Instead, Diaz, during a morning media zoom interview arranged by Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino, spoke of her intentions to take part in the pandemic-postponed Hanoi Southeast Asian Games next year, and the 2022 World Weightlifting Championships in Chonqing, China in October.

She even obliged questions regarding a possible fifth Olympic appearance — in Paris in 2024.

“Takot ako sa Paris,” she said. “Titignan ko. Alam ko mahirap ang qualifying. Kung nandon pa lakas ko, puwedeng magtuloy-tuloy.”

But retirement, after her historic conquest, is farthest from her mind.

“Hindi ko alam what to expect,” Diaz said. “But I will focus on the SEA Games. Then may world championship pa po kami. Hindi ako mag-stop hanggang kaya ko pa. May ibibigay pa ‘ko para sa Pilipinas, of course, with the help of the POC and the PSC (Philippine Sports Commission). Hindi naman na after winning, susuko na ‘ko.”

Diaz will reportedly return home Wednesday aboard a Philippine Airlines flight, and will quarantine with the rest of her team for seven days at the Sofitel Hotel.

“It’s mandatory,” Tolentino said, referring to protocols set by the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee on leaving right after competition wraps up. 

“But more important is that Hidilyn wants to be with her family who she hasn’t seen for more than one and a half years now.”

Athletes, coaches, officials and even media are required to leave Japan within 48 hours after the completion of their events or tasks as prescribed by the Tokyo Olympics Playbook.

In Diaz’s case, she has only until Wednesday to return home.

Diaz opened her own weightlifting school in her hometown of Mampang, Zamboanga City in 2017, and that facility now appears destined for a major makeover.

“I will continue to inspire the youth to dream,” she said. “Baka kasi bumaba ang standard ng sport. I will still be there hanggang sa may susunod na papalit na sa’kin.”

The massive 127kg lift in the clean & jerk that eclipsed Liao’s successful effort at 126kgs earlier and reduced the Chinese to tears during the post-final interview at the Tokyo International Forum later,  was something Diaz has never hurdled before in training.

“Na-try ko siya pero di ko magawa,” she said. “And every time na di ko magawa, frustrated ako and iiyak. Kaya di ko naiisip na magagawa ko dito. Si God siguro yon, and all the prayers kahapon kaya sobrang thankful ako.”

Diaz paid tribute to her team, from Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen, nutritionist Jeanette Aro, sports psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad and strength and conditioning coach Julius Naranjo, who days before the competition had told Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella that everybody was “in for a surprise.”

Puentevella said Naranjo had told him Diaz was “going to put on a show.”

And what a dramatic, breathless show it was, the kind that jangled the nerves and froze the heart as it extended minute after minute with Diaz and Liao one-upping the other with every successful lift.

“It was a collaborative effort to do what we need to in order to achieve our goal,” said Naranjo. “Physically, she was ready. So what we needed to do in training is build her confidence. It’s just a matter of hitting the weight she needs to hit.”

Still not allowed to reunite with her family even after she arrives, Diaz said a late night call to her folks in Zamboanga had nonetheless filled her heart.

“Usap na kami ng mother ko. Sabi ko, ‘I love you.’ Antok na sila non e. Pero gusto ko lang magpasalamat sa kanila,” Diaz, 30, said.

Whispers that went behind her back that alluded to her age and her misadventure in the Asian Weightlifting Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan last May where she failed to land a podium finish after faltering twice in the clean & jerk where she no-lifted 121 kgs and 122 kgs.

Liao ruled the Uzbekistan tournament with a combined lift of 222 kgs.

“Me mga nagsasabi na ‘wala ka na.’ Na ‘laos ka na,” she said.

The nasty asides apparently motivated Diaz to work doubly harder.

On the Asian Championship, Puentevella, who paid compliment to Diaz’s longtime coach, Antonio Agustin, at seeing him having breakfast Tuesday at the Conrad Hotel, said it was never a concern that Diaz didn’t win a medal.

“I told her not to exert too much effort because she risks getting injured,” Puentevella said. “I reminded her that Tokyo is more important than Tashkent.”

Diaz said Trinidad and Aro were especially crucial to her Olympic campaign.

“Si mam Jeanette, guide ako sa pagkain, dami Niya rin pinagdaanan,” Diaz confided. “Minsan stubborn ako, good thing naintindihan nya ‘ko. Si mam Karen naman, she got me ready psychologically with regular sessions, especially after the Asian Championship.

“Because of them I was able to do it.”

Given the enormity of the weights she needed to hit in order to thwart Chinese dominance in weightlifting, Diaz was asked after the awarding ceremony — as she took pictures with team officials onstage right where she lifted the winning 127 kgs — if she still had what it takes to go heavier had Liao managed to maintain the upper hand after her third attempt, Diaz said: “Kakayanin ko. Gagawin ko lahat para sa country.”