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A LOOK BACK AT THE GOLD MEDAL WIN OF 2021: 

A purpose bigger than gold

By Gretchen Ho, The Philippine STAR Published Jan 01, 2022 5:00 am Updated Jan 01, 2022 12:24 pm

After reaching her lifetime dream of winning the Philippines’ first Olympic gold, what is next for Hidilyn Diaz? What kind of pressure is there for a living legend like her to continue being the victor?

“Yung pressure, nandiyan na ’yan eh, kahit anong larong lalaruin mo. Yung  excitement, challenging. Pero ayun nga, sinasabi ko parati kay Julius, sa Team HD na hindi ko kasi ginagawa ito  to please other people. Ginagawa ko ito kasi mahal ko itong sports na ito and may purpose kung bakit ako nandito. Kung maglalaro ako sa Olympics or mananalo ng gold, ayaw ko na ako lang nang mag-isa, kailangan may kasama para mas-masaya at mas-marami kaming ma-inspire na Pilipino.”

The weight of the Olympic gold medal is heavy. Being the first to win it comes with a price. It comes with a responsibility that Hidilyn fully understands, ever since she won silver in Rio.

Boldly and firmly grounded, Hidilyn speaks. She knows that after winning, there will always be more mountains to conquer. Winning and losing, after all, are part of an athlete’s repertoire. The wins are to be enjoyed and savored, and the losses learned from. Stay even-keeled, as they say. At 30 years of age, Hidilyn has her whole life in front of her.

Hidilyn Diaz had the last lift. 127kg. It was a weight that she’d never carried before, not even in training.

“Iniisip ko lang na hindi siya permanent. Parang kagaya rin sa sports eh, hindi ka parating champion. Hindi ka parating gold medalist. So iniisip ko lang na  ‘enjoy the moment,’ hindi yan parating nandyan, so enjoy it then after that, just go back kung saan ako galing. Ganoon yung mindset ko.”

The weight of the Olympic gold medal is heavy. Being the first to win it comes with a price. It comes with a responsibility that Hidilyn fully understands, ever since she won silver in Rio.

Medals may have been won and records may have been broken in the most historic year for Philippine sports, but real change, just like how she journeyed through four Olympic runs to get the gold, does not happen overnight. She has already proven that it can be done, that the Olympic gold can be won by a Filipino, but she also knows she can’t be the only one.

How then do we replicate what has been achieved?

To answer that question, let’s take a quick walk back into the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games (actually held in 2021).

The gold-medal moment from inside the theater

I can’t believe it happened right in front of me, in a seemingly empty theater that contained less than 100 people. Right in the middle of a pandemic, the Philippines won its first gold medal in 97 years.

I cannot forget the pause.

The three seconds in between that clean and jerk, where everything seemed to slow down.

With Olympic records being broken already with every lift, the competition went down the wire. Hidilyn Diaz had the last lift. 127kg. It was a weight that she’d never carried before, not even in training.

Hands on the bar… Hidilyn lifted the 127 kg for the clean, YES!

Hidilyn stops for a while… I distinctly remember those three seconds where everyone in the room held their breath.

Everything boiled down to this very moment. More than 16 years of hard work.

Was she going to give in? Was she going to make it? It was about three seconds that felt like a lifetime. Everybody knows that it hasn’t been an easy journey for the Zamboanga native to get right to that stage for her fourth straight Olympics.

Three seconds... Hidilyn jerks. SHE MADE IT!

Everything boiled down to this very moment. More than 16 years of hard work.
History is made as Hidilyn officially wins the country's first-ever Olympic gold.

Tears immediately fell down on our face as we cried with Hidilyn in that moment.

Speechless as we were, we could not believe the gold-medal moment had just come to pass. Along with that win, Hidilyn did not just overcome the massive pressure of winning the first gold, but she also shattered the thick glass of self-doubt already hardened by 97 years of not being able to win top honors.

As first-time reporters to the Olympics, and having everything happen within a pandemic, my co-anchor Paolo del Rosario and I knew we had the big responsibility of making sure everybody else back home understood what was happening. With all the COVID restrictions, we acted as reporters, photographers, videographers, storytellers and sports fans all at the same time.

My co-anchor Paolo del Rosario and I soaking up the historic win. It's a night and coverage to remember for the rest of our lives.

I quickly took out my mobile phone to capture the moment inside the theater when the people behind my back cried out, “Pinoy?”

I said, “Yes! Pinoy!”

“PINOY, PINOY, PINOOOY” — these were the print journalists who were with us. We all started cheering our hearts out for Hidi. We went to the delegates of the Philippine Olympic Committee sitting near front row to stand in unison. “Wooohooooooooooo!” It didn’t matter that we weren’t allowed by the pandemic rules to shout. It was a moment to remember for a lifetime and we were going to live it.

The view from the stage of the Tokyo International Forum where the first Philippine gold was won.

Oh, what pride we had singing the Philippine national anthem inside the Tokyo International Forum, as if for the rest of the 100 million Filipinos at home who we felt were with us in spirit.

As she put her gold medal around her neck, Hidilyn pointed up, and then pointed to the flag on her chest. God and country.

“Kakaiba talaga si God. Kaya natin, mga Pinoy.”

Mastering the pause: Mental health matters

Three months before the Olympic Games, Hidilyn had competed in the Asian Championships in Uzbekistan. I remember seeing her nervous and rattled before getting on the stage, trying to get used to the feel of competition again.

After more than a year into the pandemic and 17 months of training in Malaysia, this was her first competition. It seemed to be a preview of the Olympics, with the top contenders in her weight class all coming from Asia.

Sabi ko nga sa kanya, ‘You have been doing this for a long time, you are an expert in your sport. Hindi pwedeng hindi ka makapaniwala, because one second of doubt can be difficult in weightlifting.’

Diaz finished fourth in the competition. It was her first time to be off the podium since winning gold in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. This was a humbling moment for the Zamboangeña, who had some time left to turn things around for Tokyo.

“Every competition is different. If we win today, we celebrate until 11:59. If we fail today, we cry together only until 11:59 p.m., because resiliency is very important.” Those were the words of her sports psychologist, Dr. Karen Trinidad.

Doc Karen Trinidad turned out to be a vital piece in Team HD’s historic gold-medal finish. Apart from being Hidilyn’s “call-a-friend” that helped her navigate through the anxieties of the pandemic and uncertainties of the Olympic Games pushing through, Doc Karen also worked on strengthening Hidilyn Diaz’s mind. Seeing her psychologist more consistently was one of the things that changed after Hidilyn’s silver-medal finish in Rio.

“You would see her very emotional; she’s not that confident. Nandun na yung talent, kaya lang believing in herself, ’yan yung shaky part sa kanya. Kaya kailangan nandun yung constant reminder at sabi ko nga sa kanya, ‘You have been doing this for a long time, you are an expert in your sport. Hindi pwedeng hindi ka makapaniwala, because one second of doubt can be difficult in weightlifting.”

To overcome those doubts, they worked on Diaz’s verbal cues while lifting. From saying “slow and fast” that had a one-second pause where doubt could enter, they changed her self-talk to “one motion” for her technique to become more of a flow. “I can and I will. I can and I will,” Hidilyn would repeatedly tell herself as she approached the stage for every lift.

They also worked on her visual cues. “Yung barbell color na red, nai-intimidate siya dati doon eh. Kasi alam niya yung red yung heaviest. I conditioned her that red is a symbol of strength,” Trinidad shares.

Hours before competition, Diaz was seen stepping onto the stage at the Tokyo International Forum to visualize what was going to be the biggest night of her life.

When Hidilyn came out as she was introduced for the Women’s 55kg event, I was stunned to see her in the best shape we’ve ever seen her in, smiling and waving with brimming confidence to a crowd that was not even there. From the get-go, it was as if she knew with certainty it was her night to take, absolutely baffling her opponents with her seemingly overnight transition, including the heavily favored Chinese foe.

Fighting for your village

One valuable insight that Hidilyn had from the Asian Championships was that she needed her whole team with her in Tokyo.

She needed her weightlifting and strength-and-conditioning coaches to be there for coaching and strategy; she needed her nutritionist to aid in her recovery after weigh-ins; and she needed her psychologist to help keep her emotions at bay.

Hidilyn with Team HD members: Coach Julius Naranjo, nutritionist Jeaneth Aro, coach Gao Kaiwen, Dr. Karen Trinidad, Dr. Randy Molo

In 2016, even as Diaz won the Philippines’ first silver after 20 years, she recounted that she also felt so alone competing. This time, she had the right pieces with her; all she needed to do was to fight for them to be there. True to Hidilyn fashion, she did, and it’s no wonder where she got the added confidence that night.

When we think about mental toughness, many times we think that it’s just a product of the athlete’s internal work, individual competitiveness and national pride. “PUSO!” we say. But Hidilyn’s story tells us there’s more to it than just heart.

Mental toughness, at the very top level, goes beyond individual effort. It is scaffolded by a complete, competent team around you, international training and exposure, financial commitment, and government, private and community support. This is where sports become not just a cultural matter, but also an issue of politics.

Even as she had been implicated in the Matrix, and many times scrutinized for her being vocal about her sport’s needs, maybe, just maybe, there was greater value in Hidilyn’s courage to speak out.

Investing in the future

Hidilyn Diaz raked in more than P50 million in cash incentives, several house-and-lots, free lifetime flights, gas, food and more. Add to that her product endorsements upon coming home. Rising out of poverty from a small coastal town called Mampang in Zamboanga, the CSB Business Management major knows better than to just give her money away.

“Hindi ka makakapagbigay kung wala kang sustainability sa pangtulong mo. So for me, do business first, and then we do the HD Weightlifting Academy. Kung matuloy, spread it all around the country sana. Kung may mas-konkretong business plan para mas madali i-share ang weightlifting, and then magbibigay kami ng scholarship sa mga nangangailangan ng weightlifting training.”

Kung gusto nating maging number one sa world, dapat yung standard natin ay world standard, hindi Philippine standard. So, set our standard high.

Having been like an “ate” or a big sister to many of her fellow athletes all these years, Hidilyn is determined to bring others with her in her success.

“Alam kong mahirap mag-voice out kayo (fellow athletes), kahit kung para marinig naman ng taong makakatulong sa inyo kung ano talaga mga kailangan ng isang atleta. Kasi kung hindi nila alam kung anong kailangan mo, paano mo i-a-address yung kailangan ng isang atleta?

“Kung gusto nating maging number one sa world, dapat yung standard natin ay world standard, hindi Philippine standard. So, set our standard high. Dream high and surround yourself with the people na tutulungan kayo para ma-achieve yung dream niyo.”

Hidilyn's heart beats for Filipino athletes who struggle to bring glory and honor to the country.

The full-bred Filipina already holds the winning formula. The question is will we put our resources in the right places to create more of this success story?

“Yung pinaka-pangarap ko, siguro ay makita yung full potential ng mga atleta. Nakita ko yung mga ibang atleta, they’re performing their best with a full team behind them. Sana nabibigay yung pangangailangan nila, hindi lang during competition, but also during preparation. Kasi yun ang kailangan talaga eh, hindi tayo pwede na magsabi ng gold, gold lang, we have to really prepare.

“Yun yung pangarap ko sa kanila na sana magawa nila yung best nila, hindi lang sa laro, kung hindi sa training din sana, by the support of the government, private sponsors, and proper governance.”

Easier said than done. 2021 was a banner year for Philippine sports, perhaps the best in Philippine history. We saw our athletes make a mark in different corners of the world: in golf, billiards, basketball, volleyball, football and more. But it feels like just the start of a new era, and Hidilyn’s gold medal feels the same way. Her journey is just starting and her purpose is bigger than gold.