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Hidilyn Diaz origin story: From rusty barbells in Zamboanga to her golden glory in Tokyo

By MILDRED FRAGANTE Published Jul 27, 2021 6:17 pm

Minsan na naming ginawang Luneta ang Zamboanga. 

It was in 2019, when my team and I could only afford a same-day round-trip domestic plane ticket. To make it happen, I spent weeks negotiating with my boss, figuring out how to make our budget and schedule work, convincing him we needed a Zamboanga leg for our story. Difficult and tiring as the "balikan" filming would be, we were determined to discover the beginnings of Hidilyn Diaz, the then-Olympic silver medalist to complete our sports documentary for GMA’s The Atom Araullo Specials: Dreams of Gold

The dull, rusty barbell in Hidilyn’s yard was the first thing I noticed in her mom’s house in Zamboanga. Even as I itched with curiosity, I held back and had to mind my manners. Nanay Emelita and Tatay Eduardo, Hidilyn’s parents who were then 56 years old and 59 years old respectively, were all smiles when they met us and gave us a tour of their house. 

Hindi hadlang ang kahirapan.

Nanay Emelita said it was Hidilyn who had it buiit after she bagged silver in the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

“I will stay here no matter what happens. I will die here. This was where we started. This house is lucky,” Nanay Emelita said in their native chabacano. Life wasn’t kind to them before, Nanay Emelita said.

Local kids hanging out at Diaz's Zamboanga gym in 2019. (Photos from the author)

She recalled, their old house was only made of wood and didn’t have piped-in water. They struggled to provide for their six children, with only Tatay Eduardo’s salary as a tricycle driver helping them get by. 

When eight-year-old Hidilyn took interest in weightlifting because of her cousin’s influence, she had to balance training, competing and studying. Hidilyn would bring home her P1,000 prize money and give it to her mom. Teary-eyed Nanay Emelita said, she could only give Hidilyn P30 from the P1,000 as fare for her training. The rest, were used for their family’s needs. 

“Malayo kasi, kailangan ng dalawang rides. So, ayon pera lang dati. Kailangan kong maghanap ng maglinis ng gym para may pera. Hindi hadlang ang kahirapan. Siguro kung gaano ka ka-determinado sa buhay. Kung gaano mo ka-gustong maging successful na tao.” said Hidilyn in her interview with Atom. She was in Manila training for the Southeast Asian Games.

Kasama ng sakit talaga ang tagumpay.

In the Manila leg of the shoot, Atom and the team witnessed how unwavering Hidilyn was in her training, no matter how heavy the load was. 

“Iyong hindi ka makapag-buhat nang maayos kasi marami talagang sakit, sobra. Sobra na hindi mo ma-explain. Ikaw mismo tinatanong mo bakit ang daming sakit. Pero ito iyong goal mo, kasama ng sakit talaga ang tagumpay,” she said.

Hidilyn recalled, how rough her training was when she was young. 

“Nag-start kami iyong ipil-ipil. Tapos next iyong semento. Ipil-ipil as in kahoy, kasi kailangan sa weight lifting iyong technic. Tapos dagdagan mo ng kaunti. Hindi ba dati sikat ang semento, tapos iyong mags ng jeep mga dumbel. Tapos nag-level up na kami sa town, sa school. Kasi may nag-o-offer ng weight lifting sa Zamboanga na school scholarship. So doon kami nagte-training,” said Hidilyn. 

Nanay Emelita shared, Hidilyn was 11 when her coach saw potential and gave her daughter a barbell for training at home. It was the dull, rusty barbell in Nanay Emelita’s yard. The dull, rusty barbell used to be glistening, molding Hidilyn’s strength, paving the way for one medal after the other. Eventually, Hidilyn became part of the Philippine weightlifting team and represented the country in international competitions. Shortly after Hidilyn began collecting medals.

“I don’t have enough space to display every single one,” a beaming Nanay Emelita said. 

Hidilyn's growing collection of medals in 2019

Hidilyn became the first Filipina Olympic weightlifter in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She was 17 years old that time. Nanay Emelita admitted being at edge during her daughter’s every competition. 

She would pray the rosary every night, praying for protection and victory for Hidilyn. But in 2012, Nanay Emelita’s prayers were not answered.

Hidilyn was the flagbearer of the Philippines in the 2012 London Olympics. Expectations weren’t met. Hidilyn finished last and failed to get a medal. 

“Iyong pressure going there, parang sinasabi ng mga tao ‘kailangan mong manalo kasi nakapag-qualify ka.’ Pero top 12 ata ako roon that time. Then, nalaman ko na magka-qualify ako a month before the Olympics. So, one month preparation ka lang tapos pumunta ka roon sa London. Medyo hindi naging maganda ang performance ko. Then that time talaga kasi hindi ako open sa strength conditioning. Masyadong raw pa ang lakas ko.” Hidilyn recalled.

She was on the verge of quitting. 

Then came the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

“We were screaming. We were so happy,” said Nanay Emelita as she watched her daughter bag the silver medal. Happy and proud as she was for her daughter, Nanay Emelita admitted she missed Hidilyn who was always away for training and competition. 

Inspired by Hidilyn Diaz, 30 to 40 young athletes train every day at her Zamboanga gym.

“We only talk via Facebook or text,” she said.

Hidilyn became Zamboanga’s hero. The girls in her hometown wanted to be a lifter like Ate Hidilyn. Some even used Hidilyn’s old barbell to train. In 2017, Hidilyn put up a gym near her house, where children could train for free. Some kids opted started to shun computer games to lift weights.

“Parang napakabigat na responsibilidad iyon, pero at the same time, grateful ako kasi ako ang naging inspiration nila,” said Hidilyn. 

We met over a dozen kids, champions of local competitions, aspiring to be the next Filipino weightlifting champion. 

The dull, rusty barbell became a symbol of endless possibilities. 

“Yung kinakalawang na barbell, magiging golden barbell na,” said my former boss as we reveled in Hidilyn’s gold in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. 

Nang minsang ginawa naming Luneta ang Zamboanga, mas nakilala namin ang isang bayani.

Diaz's weightlifting gym today in Barangay Mampang, Zamboanga City. The Philippine STAR / Roel Pareño