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Coach Gao says he is very proud of Hidilyn Diaz but he needs to go home now: ‘I can’t promise I will be back’

By Bim Santos Published Aug 05, 2021 11:15 am Updated Aug 05, 2021 12:39 pm

Coach Gao Kaiwen said he was very proud of Hidilyn Diaz for successfully winning the gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but he is now raring to go home to his family in China as they are already worried about him after being away for over two years in the middle of a pandemic.

Gao has been one of the key cogs in Team HD, the four-person crew that helped shape Diaz into an Olympic gold contender. The avuncular figure could often be seen and heard in Diaz’s training videos yelling monosyllabic cues for her athlete to watch her form and push further during practice: “chesout!” “go!” “yes!” “good technique!” “beautiful!”

An old hand in the sport, he was previously the head coach for the women’s team of the Chinese army and has trained two Chinese Olympic gold medalists, namely the female weightlifters Zhou Lulu and Chen Xiexia. Diaz has credited Gao for making her training more clinical by fine-tuning her lifting technique. 

After he came out of retirement in 2018 to serve as Diaz’s weightlifting coach, the 64-year-old Beijing native said that he has been delighted to work with Team HD. But he told PhilSTAR L!fe that he wants to go home now to China because of his family.

“Because for the past two-years plus, I have never been home, my family is worried too,” Gao said in Mandarin.

“Especially now that the pandemic situation is bad, I believe everyone will understand it,” Gao added.

Next time the Philippines will win more gold medals.

‘A proud moment’
Whether he will come back or not to Team HD will depend solely on how the pandemic will develop and if his family will permit him to travel again for work.

“If you look at the development of COVID, if it becomes worse, my family won’t allow me to come back. I can also understand, my family also wants me to stay healthy. If I get sick overseas, it will be risky for me. So my family is worried about that. I can’t promise that I will be back, we all don’t know when the epidemic will end. This is my real assessment of things now,” said Gao.

Looking back on the historic gold medal that Diaz won in the women’s 55-kilogram weightlifting category of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Gao said he is very proud of and happy for his ward.

“First of all, getting a gold medal is very meaningful. Filipinos have joined a lot of Olympics, but this is the first one. She made this a big part of history. It is truly a proud moment.  Next time the Philippines will win more gold medals. Through this gold medal it can uplift the Filipino spirit. So I am proud of her,” Gao said.

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

The coach also gave credit to the work of Team HD as well as the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Philippine Weightlifting Association.

Gao recalled that it was not an easy path toward getting to Tokyo 2020 after they were stuck in Malaysia, where they were just supposed to stay for three months, due to the start of the pandemic last year.

When the pandemic hit, Gao, Diaz and conditioning coach Julius Naranjo moved to the coastal state of Malacca in southwestern Malaysia.

It just brought me back to all the dark times we had during the pandemic.

In Malacca, the trio dealt with and overcame the lack of training equipment by making do with bamboo sticks and jugs of water for training. 

“It was definitely a challenge,” said Naranjo.

But the team managed to pull through, helped in no small part also by the gracious accommodation of their Malaysian host.

“All in all despite the lockdown and the adjustments we made, one of the greatest blessings we had was the hospitality of the Malaysian people and the ability for us to be able to train at home and continue the progress that we have built,” said Naranjo.

Golden moment
But every bit of sacrifice eventually paid off when Diaz successfully lifted 127 kg for her last clean-and-jerk, a feat she has not even done during practice.

“I already knew when Heidi cleaned the weight that she was gonna jerk it, there was no doubt in my mind. And when she hit the weight, seeing her cry and scream, that cry of joy, it just brought me back to all the dark times we had during the pandemic,” said Naranjo.

“It made me realize that we lifted our country up, we lifted the Philippines up, to get through this pandemic. It’s been really tough, really really hard for us, but all of our struggles and sacrifices were lifted when Hidilyn made that weight,” said Naranjo.

But though the atmosphere at the Tokyo International Forum was euphoric, Gao said he had to restrain himself as the opponent they just defeated, the world record-holder Liao Qiuyun, was from China.

“I was moved emotionally. I wanted to go up and congratulate her, but after considering we beat China, I just kept my excitement to myself,” Gao said.

Instead of immediately congratulating Diaz, Gao stayed in his corner at the backstage area in deference to his fellow Chinese.

“I could not go up and join them there in front of the TV and the lively crowd. I was backstage watching it, but deep inside I was very excited. When the crowd excitement was done, I went there and joined Heidi onstage congratulating her and celebrating. She lifted that weight, I was very proud of her,” said Gao.

They were magnanimous in defeat, they didn’t criticize me.

Gao added that it should come as no surprise that Diaz won against China as Diaz has already grown very strong. He added that the Philippines winning more gold medals should be expected.

“Winning against them (China) is doable. I think a sports program with no competition, if all the gold medals are won by one person, then we lose the significance of it. Sports itself is a competition, sports should have a lot of countries joining in, with a lot of countries getting gold medals, this way it will make a big impact in the development of sports. So the Philippines getting a gold medal isn’t debatable. Chinese people also understand this kind of sentiment,” said Gao.

Magnanimous in defeat
Diaz’s gold medal threw a monkey wrench to China’s goal to sweep Olympic weightlifting. The traditional powerhouse Chinese weightlifting team took home all the gold medals in the Tokyo Olympics for the women’s and men’s category, except in Diaz’s weight class.

Gao said he had a brief talk after with the Chinese team after the competition.

Gao and Naranjo during a Zoom interview with PhilSTAR L!fe

“They also extended their congratulations. But they also felt sorry for their loss. Because they fielded eight athletes, and the plan was to get eight gold medals too. They lost one gold, it was won by the Philippines. So the feeling of how much regret for a loss, I understand it too. But they were magnanimous in defeat, they didn’t criticize me,” said Gao.

He also said him, being a Chinese, training a Filipino, is no big deal saying as such exchanges are typical in sports, not just in weightlifting.

“I feel that politics and sports are two different concepts. We must separate politics and sports. On the part of sports, exchanges have no barriers,” said Gao. 

Prior to the Tokyo Olympics, Gao said that Diaz also went to China at least four times for training. 

“I believe that because of these exchanges, there are no barriers. It should be for both sides, it should be good cooperative work. Just like when I come to the Philippines, I am also another good example. Including the US exchanges, it is the same, as Chinese coaches also go to the US and learn. American coaches also come to China and learn. So I feel there is no need to connect problems in politics to sports,” said Gao.

If she will still persevere and get that, that will be perfect. That will be a great completion to her athletic career.

Though Gao is likely to leave soon with no certainty of coming back, he said that Diaz may still grow strong and achieve more.

“I feel that if she wants to train, she will still perform really well,” Gao said.

Philippine Olympic gold medallist Hidilyn Diaz waves to photographers as she arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on July 28, 2021, following her return to her home country after she won gold in the women's 55kg weightlifting at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

After winning the Olympic gold, and previously, the Asian Championships (2015), the Asian Games (2018) and Southeast Asian Games (2019), Gao said the only thing that may be missing right now in Diaz's medal rack is the World Championships.

Naranjo said that Paris 2024 is still far in the future and that their next possible goal for now might be the World Weightlifting Championships slated this coming November in Lima, Peru.

“Right now we are celebrating but we are still training to continue where we left off because we know that our work here is not done, and as far as Paris comes it is still premature whether or not we will pursue it,” said Naranjo.

Diaz has so far won two bronze medals in the World Championships, one in 2017 and another in 2019.

“If she will still persevere and get that world championship, that will be perfect. That will be a great completion to her athletic career,” said Gao.

(Banner and thumbnail photo from Hidilyn Diaz's Instagram account)