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Sacrifice, exile: how Filipina Hidilyn Diaz made Olympic history

By Daniel Hicks / AFP Published Jul 27, 2021 11:32 am

Triumphant weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz will now forget the years of exile, sacrifice, training and nutrition that took her to the Philippines' first Olympic gold by tucking into her favourite sweet passions, cheesecake and bubble tea.

"Yes I will eat a lot tonight," she smiled as she told AFP of her plans after her final massive 127kg lift eclipsed China's world record holder Liao Qiuyun in the women's 55kg class and gave her country a first gold after 97 years of Olympic competition.

"I mean I've been sacrificing my food, and this is the time to celebrate together with the people who are behind me. So I'm really thankful I can eat now, yes," said the 30-year-old who stands just 5ft 1in tall (1.58 metres).

Philippines' Hidilyn Diaz reacts after placing first in the women's 55kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Tokyo International Forum in Tokyo on July 26, 2021. Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Diaz, 30, was already assured a place in her country's sporting folklore, alongside the likes of Manny Pacquiao, as the only woman from the sprawling archipelago ever to win an Olympic medal when she took a surprise silver in the 53kg class in Rio five years ago.

That ended a 20-year medal drought for the country who first competed on the Olympic stage in 1924 in Paris.

She was determined to turn Rio silver into Tokyo gold and recruited top Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen two months before picking up her country's first weightlifting Asian Games gold in Jakarta in 2018.

Gao, who has also been head coach of the Chinese national women's army team, "made a difference in my lifts," said Diaz. "He's a positive person and I like to have him around me."

Gao has coached multiple Chinese Olympic medallists including 2012 women's super heavyweight gold winner Zhou Lulu.

His experience has been invaluable to Philippines Air Force servicewoman Diaz, who has blossomed late in her weightlifting career -- she did not threaten the podium in her first two Olympic appearances at Beijing and London.

Gao introduced new routines and heavier weights in training before she enlisted a second coach, Julius Naranjo, into what she calls "Team HD", since then the progression in her lifting has been phenomenal.

Hidilyn has not seen her family since December 2019.

Diaz lifted 92kg in the snatch and 115kg in the clean and jerk three years ago to win the Asian Games, 7kg greater than her Olympic silver medal total.

On Monday in Tokyo she shattered those marks, albeit at a weight division 2kg heavier, with a 97kg snatch and a flawless series of 119kg, 124kg and 127kg in her three clean and jerk attempts.

It is all the more remarkable because Diaz has been living in exile in Malaysia since February last year due to the Covid pandemic.

'Looking forward to enjoy life'
She had to put on hold her life outside of sport -- her family, her air force career, college studies and managing her weightlifting gym in her home town of Zamboanga on the southern island of Mindanao.

Now she can't wait to go home.

"I'm looking forward to enjoy life because I have been in Malaysia for, I don't know, almost two years so I'm really thankful I can go home now and celebrate with my family and the people who support me," she told AFP at the Tokyo International Forum after being presented with her gold medal.

The daughter of a tricycle driver in a poor village near Zamboanga, Diaz has not seen her family since December 2019.

She initially went to train in Malaysia in February 2020 because Gao thought it would be better for her as she focused on qualifying for Tokyo.

But within weeks came COVID-19 restrictions, leaving Diaz to battle gym closures, lack of access to weightlifting equipment and the grinding uncertainty of whether the Games would be held at all.

For months Diaz and "Team HD" were stuck in an apartment block in the capital Kuala Lumpur where they had to be careful not to crack the tiled floor while training with weights.

But the tireless Diaz still managed to find time to raise money through online training sessions to distribute food packages to poor families back home who were suffering during coronavirus lockdowns.

In October last year, she relocated to the southern coastal state of Malacca where they have been living in a house owned by a Malaysian weightlifting official.

She began using a nearby gym but restrictions were tightened again, forcing her to work out in the house's sweltering open-air carport for the last few months.

Now all the hardship has been rewarded and she will be given a hero's welcome when she returns to the Philippines.

"I don't know if I'm a national hero," she told AFP after winning her historic Olympic gold on Monday.

"But I'm thankful that God used me to inspire all the young generation and all the Philippines people to keep fighting during this pandemic."