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PH weightlifters Hidilyn Diaz, Elreen Ando are going for the gold at Tokyo Olympics

By Johanna Añes-de la Cruz, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 21, 2021 3:30 pm

Weightlifting is no longer seen as a man’s sport—especially in the Philippines where two of our most prized athletes are female weightlifters.

We are only a few days into the Tokyo Olympics, and our very own weightlifting fairies Hidilyn Diaz and Elreen Ando are gearing up for what is arguably the most challenging Summer Olympic Games to date with COVID-19 posing an additional threat and source of anxiety for the athletes.

Hidilyn Diaz: The Weightlifting Wonder

Hidilyn Diaz is no stranger to the Olympic Games. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she ended the country’s 20-year medal drought and gifted her kababayans with a silver medal, only our third in the history of the event. Hidilyn surely has come far from her early weightlifting days using homemade barbells made of plastic pipes and cement-filled tin cans.

This time, her eyes are set on the elusive gold. The expectations are high and the conditions a bit tougher with COVID-19 cases spreading in the host city in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony, but Hidilyn comes ready, determined, and all pumped up.

Talking to PhilSTAR L!fe a few days after her arrival in Tokyo, Hidilyn shared that things were not all smooth sailing on the road toward her fourth Olympic appearance.

“After the Rio Olympics, hindi pa ako ganun kaseryoso sa training. Noong 2018, noong nagstart na ang qualifying (games) tapos iyong weight (class) ko is 55 (kilos), although may team na ako noon, etong 2018 nagkaroon ako ng solid team. Yung preparation kasi nung 2018 hindi masyadong maganda ang training ko, hindi masyadong maganda ang result ng competition ko kasi 9th overall ako, pangit. Noong 2019 sabi ng coaches ko I have to stop sa school, then nag training kami outside the Philippines—China, Taiwan, Malaysia yung last.”

Despite having to be away from her family and friends because of the lack of equipment here at home, Hidilyn had to make that sacrifice for her Olympic dream.

“I had to train outside the Philippines because I had to focus.” She recognizes that preparing for the world’s biggest sporting event is not a one-woman show, and she needs a team to help her be the best athlete she can be, “Yung preparation ko for the Olympics is that I’m not alone, I have a team beside and behind me. Na-realize ko na I need a team to help me sustain my performance. I cannot do it alone.”

Hidilyn Diaz at the Olympic Village in Tokyo. Photo from Diaz’s Facebook page.

She admits that the pressure to bring home a medal is really strong, “Ang challenge is in proving na kaya ko pa rin, hindi pa ako laos. Kaya ko maging malakas at manalo sa Olympics with my team behind me. Kasi, this will be my fourth Olympics already.” She hopes that people would be more understanding of the fact that winning at the Olympics is a herculean task, “Of course it’s hard to make people understand na ‘di madaling manalo sa Olympics, kailangan mo ng preparasyon, kailangan mo ibigay yung lahat ng sakripisyo. Mahirap. Mahirap siya.”

Hidilyn shares that the Olympics is a little more challenging this time around because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Paglapag namin ang laki ng difference (between the Rio Olympics). Wala pa kami sa Tokyo ang dami nang (COVID-19) tests. Ang daming pipirmahan at gagawin. Everyday nagsasaliva testing kami dito. Lahat kami naka-mask pero kahit naka-mask nakakatakot pa rin.”

Because of the strange circumstances surrounding the Games this year, Hidilyn requests her countrymen to pray harder for the Philippine contingent. “Kaya please include us in your prayers kasi hindi lang yung kalaban namin sa laro ang kalaban namin dito, kalaban din namin dito yung virus kaya please include us in your prayers.”

Despite the challenges and the uncertainties that continue to hound this year’s Games, Hidilyn is thankful that the Tokyo Olympics finally pushed through, “Thankful ako na natuloy itong laro. Pero nakakatakot pa rin kasi ang dami talagang tao sa dining hall. Nagpapasalamat kami sa Japan, sa IOC (International Olympic Committee), na ipinagpatuloy nila ito, kahit mahirap, kahit ang daming bashers, kahit ang daming salungat dito. Thank you for making it happen. Nandito na kami, at malaking bagay ito sa aming mga atleta.”

She only has the deepest gratitude for her supporters and has this to say to them, “Sa lahat ng mga supporters ko at ng lahat ng Filipino athletes, salamat po sa patuloy na suporta sa amin at sa pagtitiwala. Kailangan na kailangan po namin ang panalangin ninyo.”

Hidilyn was only 17 when she began her weightlifting career. At 25, she won the silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Now at 30, Tokyo 2020 is her 4th time to qualify for the Summer Olympics. She is seeing action in the women’s 55kg event.

In an earlier interview with The Philippine Star, Diaz said she will concentrate on earning her degree at the College of St. Benilde after the Tokyo Olympics. She will then resume training for the Southeast Asian and Asian Games before deciding on whether or not to gun for a fifth Olympic berth in the 2024 Summer Games in Paris. If she goes to Paris, Diaz will tie shooter Martin Gison for the most Olympic appearances by a Philippine athlete and the most for a Filipina.

Elreen Ando: The Heir Apparent

Hot on the trail that Hidilyn blazed is Elreen Ando, a 22-year-old Cebuana who is competing in her first Olympic Games.

Elreen started weightlifting when she was still a junior high school student at the University of Cebu (UC) after she was discovered by weightlifting coach Garry Toleno. She went on to play at the collegiate level after UC granted her a scholarship. This jump started her journey as a competitive weightlifter wherein she saw herself competing in tournaments both here and abroad.

Elreen Ando. Photo from Ando’s Facebook page

Elreen earned a spot at the Olympics through a continental allocation as she became the highest-ranked athlete in the International Weightlifting Federation absolute ranking list for the women's -64kg event in Asia with two silvers and a bronze at the 2021 Asian Weightlifting Championships.

Her qualification comes as a bit of a surprise even for Elreen herself who was expecting to qualify for the Olympics, not this one, though, but the one in Paris three years from now.

Photo from Ando’s Facebook page

The 2019 SEA Games silver medalist was focused on building her strength, enhancing her skills, and improving her world ranking so she can book a ticket to Paris in 2024.

Life had other plans, however, and Ando could only be thankful for this opportunity. In an interview with The Philippine Star last month, Ando said that qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics sees her training even harder. She also credits her Ate Hidilyn for being a steady source of motivation and expert advice, “It really makes a big difference having Ate Hidi as a teammate. Her experience and advice have really helped me.”