From a bamboo pole to Olympic gold, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz’s arduous build-up to the Tokyo Games culminated on the top step of the podium.
Diaz won the first gold medal for the Philippines on Monday, a triumphant result for a country that has competed at every Summer Olympics except one since 1924.
Diaz, who upset world record holder Liao Qiuyun of China with her final lift, was training in Malaysia when the coronavirus pandemic hit and has been separated from her family for quite some time.
“I’m looking forward to going home to the Philippines and being with my family, because I really miss them,” Diaz said. “I’m looking forward to enjoying life because I’ve been in Malaysia for almost three years, so I’m really thankful that I can go home now and celebrate with my family.”
Diaz is four-time Olympian who carried her country’s flag during the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Games and won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
“It’s a dream come true,” Diaz said. “I just want to say that we Filipinos are strong. We Filipinos can compete here at the Olympics. We can do it. To all the young generation in the Philippines, please dream high. That’s how I started. I dreamed high and finally I was able to do it.”
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She also had to overcome some obstacles. At one stage when her gym was closed during lockdown, Diaz trained with large water bottles attached to a bamboo pole, holding the weight above her head and squatting to work on core strength.
Diaz, who holds the rank of sergeant in the Philippines Air Force, offered a salute on the podium. She also said her faith played a large part in a win she called “a miracle”.
Diaz was a firm supporter of hosting the Olympics during the pandemic. She posted a picture on Instagram with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach last week, praising him for “standing and not giving up on the Olympics”.
In the Philippines, Diaz’s win was euphoric for a Southeast Asian nation that has been grappling with the second-largest number of coronavirus infections and deaths in the region and the aftermath of torrential monsoon rains that have flooded the capital and outlying provinces and displaced thousands of villagers.
President Rodrigo Duterte, top defence and military officials, business leaders and ordinary Filipinos expressed gratitude and congratulations. A senator filed a resolution commending Diaz for overcoming daunting odds and taking a place in her country’s “pantheon of legendary athletes”.
“Hidilyn’s gold medal shines bright in the dark story of the pandemic,” Senator Risa Hontiveros said.
From her impoverished beginnings in sports as a girl who lifted plastic pipes and homemade concrete weights cast in old tin cans, Diaz “should serve as a reminder of every Filipina’s resilience in the face of adversity and strength against all odds”, Hontiveros added.
Another senator proposed that the Philippine Air Force commission Diaz as an officer for her feat.
Aside from well wishes, a windfall of financial rewards await Diaz. Philippine officials and companies have pledged more than 30 million pesos ($600,000) in cash and other rewards for any member of the small Filipino contingent that would bring home the long-elusive Olympic gold. A leading Philippine real estate company announced that it would reward Diaz with a residential condominium unit in an upscale district in metropolitan Manila.
Air Asia have also reportedly offered Hidilyn free unlimited flights for life. The sky is the limit.
Diaz’s victory could push the Philippine government to provide more financial and other support to long-neglected Filipino athletes. “I think this victory is also a game-changer for Philippine sports,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said on Tuesday. “This is a reason maybe for our policymakers to really appropriate a bigger support to our athletes.”
Back home, as Hidilyn was making history, the Diaz family — their eyes glued to a television in the southern Philippines — yelled “push, push, push!” as she hoisted the bar to win the country’s first Olympic gold medal.
“Then we erupted in joy — we were shouting, some shed tears of joy,” Emelita Diaz told AFP on Tuesday, a day after watching her daughter’s historic performance in Tokyo — far from her hometown of Zamboanga. “We didn’t know what to feel because we were extremely happy.”
The 30-year-old’s triumph has raised her to the national hero status reserved for the likes of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
“Thank you, Hidilyn Diaz, for the first-ever Olympic Gold for the Philippines! We are so proud of you!” Pacquiao tweeted.
Diaz’s stunning victory was splashed across the front pages of Philippine newspapers and news websites.
The Philippine Star’s headline “Finally, Olympic Gold” reflected the collective relief of Filipinos at winning their first gold medal after 97 years of Olympic competition.
Diaz’s win was an inspiration for other women, said Karen Afurong, an instructional designer in Manila. “We feel empowered,” the 29-year-old said.
Emelita said the family spoke with Diaz on Tuesday morning and congratulated her. “I told her: ‘It’s a big honour to our family that you brought another honour to the country’,” Emelita said.
More than 20 relatives, including nieces and nephews, crowded onto the porch of the family home to watch Diaz’s performance, using a smartphone connected to their television. “We were nervous,” said Emelita. “They were shouting ‘push, push, push’, get it, Haidie!’. They were shouting and jumping for joy.”
Even before the dust settles, Diaz admitted she was already thinking about the Paris Olympics in 2024. “Qualifying will be difficult, but if my strength is there I will continue,” she said. “I cannot quit after winning. I need to continue until someone succeeds me.”