An Olympic gold has finally reached Philippine shores, 97 years after quest after quest, expedition after expedition — from Paris in 1924 to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 — returned bearing not the prized medallion.
After 18 months, Hidilyn Diaz, the heroine of the country’s modern day Olympic Games campaign, is at last home.
Under normal times, she would have rode in a grand motorcade fitting a queen, with the streets lined five-, even six-deep with adoring fellowmen, all eager to pay homage to the Filipino gladiator who had brought down a mighty world champion.
Instead, she and her entourage were driven from the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to the Sofitel Hotel where they will start a seven-day quarantine before an entire country could give her a collective embrace — even if not physically.
Being away for so long, it was all worth it as Diaz got what she aimed for the moment she left for overseas in late January 2020 as she captured the country’s first-ever gold medal in the Olympics.
On board Philippine Airlines flight PR 427, members of the national team that included Diaz and street skateboarding finalist Margielyn Didal arrived at around 6 p.m. at NAIA Terminal 2.
The 30-year-old Diaz flew in with Chinese head coach Gao Kaiwen, sports psychologist Dr. Karen Trinidad and Julius Naranjo, her strength and conditioning coach.
Diaz ruled the 55-kilogram category in women’s weightlifting in the Tokyo Olympics last Monday, July 26 at the Tokyo International Forum.
Her historic gold medal came exactly five years after she earned a silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Diaz successfully lifted an Olympic record 127kg in her favorite clean and jerk event on the third and last attempt.
Diaz’s best lift in the snatch event was 97kg in snatch, which gave her a total of 224kg – also an Olympic mark.
China’s Qiuyun Liao, the world record holder, finished with a total of 223kg following her 97kg in snatch and 126kg in clean and jerk to earn the silver medal, while Kazakhstan’s Zulfiya Chinshanlo placed third for the bronze with a total of 213kg – 90kg in snatch and 123kg in clean and jerk.
She was welcomed by officers of the Philippine Air Force, where Diaz is an officer, and the Philippine Sports Commission’s Charles Maxey and Celia Kiram.
“We are proud to represent the Philippine Sports Commission and the Filipino people in welcoming back our first Filipino Olympic gold medalist. A Filipina! Babaeng matatag. Welcome back Hidilyn. We are very happy for you and very proud of you,” said Kiram.
Diaz, an Airwoman Sergeant, arrived arrived with her tracksuit but she changed outfit with her uniform as she was met with Air Force officials.
Carrying bouquet of flowers, Diaz waved to a small crowd that included media personnel inside the arrival area.
With Diaz and her team was Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella.
The moment she lifted 127kg, Diaz let out a shout and wept in joy.
Naranjo immediately hugged the native of Zamboanga City, before other members of the “HD Team” joined the celebration.
Diaz has experienced coming home to a ‘Heroes’ Welcome’ particularly when she brought home a silver medal in 2016 that ended 20 years of medal drought for the Philippines in the Olympics.
But this one was different.
For her historic achievement, Diaz – gold medalist in the 2018 Asian Games – is set to receive more than P40 million in cash incentives, including P10 million from the government through the Philippine Sports Commission.
Also giving P10 million each are private sectors like the MVP Sports Foundation (MFPSF) of telecommunication mogul Manny V. Pangilinan, and San Miguel Corp. of business tycoon Ramon S. Ang.
Deputy Speaker Mikee Romero also pledged an additional P3 million for gold medalist, while Diaz’s home province of Zamboanga City reportedly would provide P2.5 million.
Megaworld, the property empire owned by business tycoon Dr. Andrew L. Tan, announced Tuesday that it is giving a residential condominium unit at the posh Eastwood City in Quezon City worth P14 million, while Siklab Atleta Pilipinas Sports Foundation Inc. led by presidential sports adviser Dennis, has promised to give Diaz P5 million and lifetime free fuel from Phoenix Petroleum.
AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandez also announced that the company is awarding Diaz lifetime free flights under the 5-year unlimited flights within the AirAsia route network.
It was all worth the sacrifice and challenges for Diaz and her team, which left for Malaysia in late January two years ago for a training camp. But because of a lockdown when the COVID-19 pandemic broke down in March last year, Diaz, Naranjo and Gao were forced to stay in Malaysia.
She completed the required six Olympic Qualifying Tournaments (OQTs) during the Asian Championship where she missed the podium as she finished fourth overall last April in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
But her redemption came in Tokyo, and with it the country’s wait for the elusive Olympic gold.
Other members of the national team that arrived Wednesday, July 28 were weightlifter Elreen Ann Ando, weightlifting coaches Tony Agustin and Ramon Solis, and skateboarder Didal and her coach Daniel Bautista.
Didal finished seventh among eight finalists in the street skate event, while Ando placed seventh among 10 participants in the 64-kilogram category of the women’s weightlifting.
All athletes and coaches are required to stay at the Sofitel as mandatory travel health protocol although there are plans for Diaz to make a courtesy call with President Duterte in Malacañang.