Growing up with mostly male cousins in her hometown of Mampang, Zamboanga, Hidilyn Diaz knew at a young age that she neither had the height nor the agility to compete in sports like basketball and volleyball. She was always the underdog when it came to these games. Eventually, however, she discovered one thing she’s really good at—lifting heavy things.
Hidi must have developed the muscle power carrying pails of water from a rationing station—which was located hundreds of meters from their house. Water was scarce in their area. The second youngest among six children, the future athlete would also lend her Tatay Eduardo a helping hand in bringing vegetables and fish to be sold in the market.
When Hidi saw her aspiring lifter cousins carry cut ipil wood, the girl’s curiosity was piqued. An older cousin, Catalino Diaz Jr., encouraged Hidi, then 11 years old, to try weightlifting and she surprisingly enjoyed it. She got even more delighted when she found out she was even better than her male cousins at the sport. “It was a way of pagpapakitang-gilas sa mga pinsan kong lalaki,” she told ABS-CBN Sports’ The Score in a 2019 interview. “Naging competition sya.”
It turns out Catalino had noticed his cousin’s potentials early on. He knew she could have a bright future in the sport. “Nakita ko kasi sa body type niya, hindi talaga pang girly-girly,” he told ABS-CBN. But that meant he had to convince Hidi’s mother, Emelita, to allow her daughter to train in another barangay.
Emelita wasn’t so sure her daughter, who was the studious type, had the makings of a weightlifter. “Si Hidilyn ay mabait na bata, masunurin nung bata, masipag sa pag-aaral,” Emelita told ABS-CBN. “Kahit tres pesos lang ‘yung baon niya, eh pumupunta talaga siya sa paaralan para mag-aral dahil gusto niya talaga makatapos sa pag-aaral.”
Hidi, then entering her teenage years, also admitted to The Score that she also had misgivings about the sport, as her mother thought weightlifting wasn’t for women. “Wag ka dyan, walang magkakagusto sa iyo. Magkakamuscle ka. Hindi ka mabubuntis,” she remembers her mom telling her.
But the young lady’s curiosity and thirst for a challenge prevailed. Also, she was having fun. She started training by lifting cut ipil wood and cement barbells at first, until the Diazes were able to buy the real thing—steel barbells. They would lift under the sampaloc tree for a couple of hours, and typically snacked on boiled cassava with shrimp paste for merienda.
That same year, Hidi joined the weightlifting competition in Batang Pinoy, the Philippine Sports Commission’s grassroots program, and won. That was when she realized the sport could help propel her dreams, allow her to get scholarship opportunities. Later on, she made it to the Philippine National Team which necessitated a move to Manila to train.
Hidi’s Olympic career started at the Beijing Olympics in 2008; she was 17, the youngest female weight lifter in that competition. She would compete three more times in the prestigious sporting event: at age 21, age 25, and 30. She encountered setbacks along the way—including a dismal performance at the 2012 London Olympics and a knee injury in 2013.
“Alam nyo naman pag may injury ang isang atleta, yun na ang katapusan namin,” she told Boy Abunda after winning the silver medal in the Women’s 53kg Weightlifting category at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “Nadepress ako, nahirapan magbuhat. Kasi pag nagstop kaming magbuhat, nawawalan kami ng meaning sa buhay.”
Imagine if she had given up that early, allowed the depression to get the best of her. She wouldn’t have earned the distinction, back in 2016, of being the first Filipina to win a medal in the Olympics. And she wouldn’t have experienced, Monday night, the glory of winning the first Olympic gold medal for herself and her home country. She says she can’t wait to come home to share her victory with her loved ones—back in Mampang, Zamboanga, in the place where she began with lifting pails of water and pieces of wood, before she started lifting the spirit of a nation.