Coach Jeannette Aro’s work in nutrition helped fuel our country’s historic medal haul.
When Hidilyn Diaz made her final lift in the Tokyo Olympics, the few seconds where she held the weights up triumphantly changed Philippine history forever. The country had finally won its first Olympic gold medal after 96 years of trying.
As with all great stories, however, it wasn’t just about the few seconds in 2021. It was about the years of hard work and excellence, first and foremost by Diaz, but also by her team behind the scenes.
As a chef and a former coach of a national sports team, it was such a treat to be able to sit down and talk about food with Coach Jeannette Aro, whose work in nutrition helped fuel our country’s historic medal haul.
Accident or destiny?
Coach Jeannette never really thought about becoming a nutritionist and dietitian growing up. In fact, until college, she never really knew what she was destined to do. All her focus was on her career as a varsity taekwondo athlete.
“I was very busy with my commitment to UP as a varsity player, so my focus really was to fulfill my commitment.”
When finally faced with the decision to choose a major to focus on, her love for fitness and sports led her to choose nutrition. After a couple of years, she finally saw the connection and realized that, while taking up Community Nutrition in UP seemed like “an accident or coincidence,” this was going to be exciting.
What was definitely not an accident or coincidence was how she came to work with Hidilyn Diaz. Before they met, Coach Jeannette was already working with several athletes, ranging from collegiate to professional, so when they were finally introduced, the partnership seemed like a good idea.
She believes that it was the perfect time since Diaz was coming off her silver medal performance in the 2016 Rio Olympics and she was already looking for a nutritionist to up her game. “There really was no convincing needed on my part,” Aro shares.
What was not easy, though, was forging a connection between them. “Hidi was already an elite athlete when I met her,” she says.
As with all elite athletes who’ve been successful, Diaz already had habits and routines that worked for her, so Coach Jeannette was careful in implementing changes to her supplementation routine, food selection and the portioning of her food slowly, and making sure to adjust to her needs.
Free days versus cheat days
Asked what an elite-level athlete’s daily meals would be, Aro explains it all depends on which phase of the preparation they are in. For Hidilyn she prepared different meal programs for the different phases: training, weight cutting and competition. She reveals that, especially during the training phase, the food athletes enjoy are actually quite similar to what we all eat.
“Eggs for breakfast, milk and fruit,” says Aro. For lunch and dinner, she had rice and a “portion of meat.” For an afternoon snack, it was sometimes kamote, or bread with peanut butter.
For Coach Jeannette, another important part of the meal program was Hidi’s “free days.” On some weekends, Hidilyn was able to enjoy pretty much anything.
“I’d rather call them ‘free days’ and not ‘cheat days’ (so there’s no) sense of condemnation. I wanted it as natural as possible, as easy as it can be. As long as we get to achieve what is needed, in terms of body composition, in terms of weight, in terms of training performance, then there’s no problem.”
Many would assume that a weightlifter like Hidilyn would need more protein but, says Coach Jeannette, “I always stick to the foundational principles of sports nutrition and provide the right balance of carbs, proteins and fats and prioritize the types of macronutrients such as specific carbs that would be needed for a particular period.”
Aro maintains that she didn’t work in a vacuum. She had to work with all of Hidilyn’s coaches to succeed.
“Doing collaborative work takes a lot of effort. To us, the way we have succeeded in this campaign, the foundation was collaborative work with the athlete, with the coaches, including the sports psychologist, so time is really one of the greatest investments in this kind of endeavor.”
The Olympic experience
Asked about the Olympic experience, specifically the food, Coach Jeannette confirms how much food there is available at the games. She described the huge two-level main dining hall in Japan, where everything from Japanese cuisine to Italian food was available at all hours, from healthful, gluten-free and vegetarian choices to indulgent treats like dessert and sodas.
But the wealth of choices could actually be detrimental to an athlete’s physical and mental preparations, particularly those who were participating in sports with weight classes.
“That was a major, major, major problem,” she shares. “That’s why I was always with the athletes, not just in the dining hall. Every single day I’d go with them because I’d have to monitor” how they were and what they consumed. It was especially hard for Aro to monitor intake, since she was handling not just Hidilyn, but six other competing Olympians.
Proving a point
Coach Jeannette sees a need to hire more dietitians and nutritionists who specialize in athletic performance to be able to help more elite-level athletes develop in the future, even after the historic medal haul from the Tokyo games.
“The Tokyo Olympics already made a statement for me and for the profession,” she says. If you still can’t see it, Aro spells it out: “Kailangan po talaga, dahil naisakatuparan ang misyon na hindi lang makuha ang medalya. Apat po yung naiuwi natin.” (It is needed because we accomplished the mission — not just to get a medal; we brought home four.)
I couldn’t have said it better myself.