Hidilyn Diaz, Filipino silver medalist at the 2016 Rio de Jainero Olympics, has lived the life of an athlete since she was a child. At 11, she began exploring weightlifting. At 16, she was already training outside the country, spending months away from her family in Zamboanga City.
But nothing could have prepared Hidilyn for the months of physical, mental, and emotional strain she had to go through training for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics—now just two months away from finally becoming a reality.
Hidilyn and her team, Coach Kaiwen Gao and her boyfriend Coach Julius Naranjo, have been living and training in Malaysia for 15 months now. At Ces Drilon’s Monday night Kumu program “Bawal Ma-Stress Drilon,” the Olympic medalist revealed her current training routine. She wakes up at 8:00 AM; trains (twice daily) until 7:30 PM; attends her online classes at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde; and ends the day chatting with her fans and followers on social media. By the time she hits the sack, it’s midnight.
She misses her family. She misses Filipino food—kare-kare, sisig, and pastil earn special mention. As if she can really indulge in these favorites, even if she’s given access. “Kailangan kong mag-diet,” she admits, laughing. Sometimes she cooks her own food, but most of the time her coaches do the cooking for the team. In Malaysia, they live near the city of Malacca, which is around three hours away from the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL). Food delivery services, she says, are not as easy to come by in her location as it is in KL.
Sundays are her cheat days. “Hirap i-control, lalo pag stress sa training, gusto mo ilabas sa pagkain.” But as the games are getting nearer, the cheat days have to slowly vanish.
Isolation is key
The team leaves for Japan on July 19, to have enough time to prepare for her game on July 26. Until then, she’ll continue to undergo isolation training, or training outside her home country.
She needs the distance, she says, to focus.
But good as it may be for physical training, isolation can leave a lot of room for overthinking, and mental fatigue. And these are what she’s trying to overcome—what athletes like her try to fight throughout their careers.
At the 2020 Asian Weightlifting Championships held last April in Uzbekistan, she missed the podium when she landed in fourth place. She says being away from the competition for a long time, while stuck in quarantine, took its toll. It results in too much thinking: “Ngayon, kailangan kong i-push sarili ko. Masyado akong nag-isip paano ang technique. Dapat automatic. Automatic na naniniwala ako sa sarili ko.”
Overthinking is her enemy. “Kinakabahan ako pag masyado akong nag-o-overthink…kaya ayaw kong mag-isa. Kaya kailangan ko pa din ang social media.”
No matter the negative things people say about it, social media works for Hidilyn—she has been slowly learning this since she shot to fame following her Olympic victory five years ago. Her fans’ support online—especially from the young women—reminds her why she needs to keep moving forward. “Hindi lang siya success or medal. Na-realize ko na I have a role to be a good citizen and a good role model sa mga kabataan. It’s also a responsibility.”
She knows social media can be the bane of a celebrity. On certain days, the bashers make their way through her virtual space. It can mess up with her mind, she admits, so when a competition is forthcoming, she tries to go offline. “Hayaan mo sila,” she tells herself. “Opinyon nila yan. Hindi ’yan nagpapa-define kung ano ka, kung ano gusto kong gawin.”
The real heavy weight
At one point in the interview, Ces asks Hidilyn how she feels about carrying the name of an entire country in an event as big a deal as the Olympics—and in the era of Covid at that.
“Medyo mabigat,” Hidilyn answers. “Parang nagbubuhat din ako ng barbell. Pero at the end of the day,kailangan ko lang din alamin kung ano ’yong starting point, ano ’yong technique na kailangan mong gawin. Kasi kahit mabigat ’yan, kung alam natin paano-i-handle ang bigat, kayang kaya natin.”
There are times her body would hurt so bad from training that she has to spend the next day just staying in bed. There are times she feels her journey is going nowhere. And there are times when the loneliness can be too much to bear. “Nakakapagod din maging atleta,” she says. “Iniisip ko na lang na eto kasi ginusto ko. Mahal ko ’tong ginagawa ko.”
She says an athlete needs to accept the fact that she will not always win. “Mas maraming beses na umiiyak kami,” she offers. “Mas maraming beses na nasasaktan kami, mas maraming beses na nagfe-fail kami. Every time na nasa taas, alam kong hindi ’yon permanent. Alam kong temporary lang ang success. Ginamit ko na lang’yon to influence the young generation to engage in sports, lalo mga kababaihan.”
During their free time, her team teaches weightlifting to young Muslim girls in Malaysia. In whatever country they train, as part of their advocacy, her group always makes it a point to persuade children to engage in sports, especially weightlifting.
When she’s not coaching, Hidilyn focuses on her mental fortitude. Every week, she talks to her sports psychologist who keeps reminding her that all the hard work is worth it. “Importante na may kausap ka,” she reminds the Kumu viewers. Sometimes, she writes down all her thoughts and frustrations; and sometimes she eats all her feelings away. She does yoga every Sunday, too. “Minsan nilalabas ko sa pagpapaganda,” she admits, laughing. “Magpaganda na lang ako, para ma-divert ’yong attention. Nagme-makeup ako. ’Tapos minsan bumabalik lang ako sa kung bakit ko ‘to ginagawa.”
Her purpose, she says, mostly lies in her responsibility to the future Filipino sportsman; to the country; and to her goals as an athlete—which doesn’t necessarily involve medals, but constant self-improvement.
She knows she’s preparing her mind and body for a very unusual Olympics—one that will require the least amount of interaction with people, and maybe even less movement. It’s one that may require hours spent alone, dealing with her own thoughts. She knows that’s the first battle she must absolutely win.