Sports nutrition Coach Jeaneth Aro has worked and collaborated with hundreds of Filipino athletes in her almost two-decade career. But her Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games experience was one for the books.
Especially because Coach Jeaneth was directly involved in the nutrition programs of four Filipino Olympians who eventually took home medals for the Philippines—weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz who secured the country’s first gold, and boxers Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam and Eumir Marcial.
A private practitioner—she is the owner and Chief Nutritionist of Nutrifit, a Nutrition Consultancy Services provider) —Coach Jeaneth handled 7 out of the 19 athletes that represented our country in Tokyo. Apart from the four mentioned above, she was on top of the diets of Pinay boxer Irish Magno, taekwondo athlete Kurt Barbosa, and rower Chris Nievarez. She was engaged by the National Sports Associations (NSAs) with the funding support of the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC).
A registered Nutritionist-Dietitian, Coach Jeaneth holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Community Nutrition from the College of Home Economics, University of the Philippines-Diliman. She earned her certification as a nutrition coach from Precision Nutrition, a Canada-based nutrition coaching services provider. She is also an Olympic Solidarity Scholar who completed the International Olympic Committee Sports Nutrition Diploma.
One of the reasons she decided to focus on sports nutrition is because she was previously an athlete herself. She used to compete in taekwondo back in high school and college. After completing her collegiate studies and got her license as a nutritionist-dietician, she transitioned to having a private practice as a dietitian, catering primarily to clients engaged in sports, fitness, and weight management.
“Hindi ako masyadong nag-focus sa hospital dietetics. I instead focused on sports nutrition because I saw the need back then,” she tells ANCX. “During that time, hindi pa talaga masyadong nabibigyan ng importance ang sports nutrition dito sa Pilipinas as a developing country. But in highly developed countries, the practice of sports nutrition had already gained traction.”
According to Coach Jeaneth, nutrition does not only play an important role when it comes to an athlete’s weight management (say when an athlete needs to lose a huge amount of weight). It’s also essential when it comes to altering body composition (when the athlete needs to develop more lean mass, trim down body fat), and allowing the athlete to perform based on the required intensity of training. Nutrition is also very important to allow the athlete’s body to recover for the next training session.The UP alumna got involved with the national team after obtaining her license. This led to her being the sports nutritionist of the national basketball team for the SEA Games in 2007. From then on, she had been regularly contracted by different NSAs, high schools and collegiate schools, various national and commercial sports teams, associations, and clubs (e.g. Philippine Olympic Committee, Gilas 2.0 basketball team, La Salle Greenhills Swimming Team, National University Taekwondo Team, Smart Pro Cycling Team, Alpha Gymnastics and teams from the Philippine Basketball Association) to provide nutrition programs for their athletes.
Joining Team HD
It was in 2017, right after Hidilyn won the silver medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, when the weightlifting champ decided to form a team of coaches/advisers who will help her snag the coveted Olympic gold medal. “She knew back then that if she wanted to pursue a bigger goal, then she must also enlist the help of different practitioners—kaya binuo nya ang Team HD,” shares Coach Jeaneth.
Hidilyn started lobbying for Coach Jeaneth to join her in competitions—meaning, be with her inside the warm-up area as one of her three coaches supporting and helping her during the actual competition. But this was only made possible during the 2019 World Weightlifting Championships where Hidi won the bronze medal.
Over time, the team has been able to refine their strategies and goals, and establish the roles of each member, leading to a series of wins: a silver medal at the 2019 Asian Championship, a gold medal at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games in Manila, and three gold medals at the Roma 2020 World Cup in Rome, Italy. Team HD is quite unique for having a dietician as part of its team of coaches. A weightlifter’s team would usually consist of a weightlifting coach, a physiologist or personal trainer, and a strength and conditioning coach. In Tokyo, Coach Jeaneth would provide Hidi’s recovery nutrition after the weigh-in and during the two-hour competition. She would also give the athlete certain concoctions to help maximize her performance during stressful conditions at the competition. What are these concoctions? “I prefer not to mention them,” she says.
Team HD’s plans for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were all set even before the pandemic. Coming from the competition in Italy, the group proceeded to train in Malaysia. Coach Jeaneth would first check on what possible foods her ward can eat while there and proceed to return home to the Philippines.
Team HD would regularly meet via Zoom. Despite uncertainties on whether or not the Olympics will push thru, Coach Jeaneth would send Hidi weekly meal plans, in coordination with the training program set by Coaches Gao Kaiwen and Julius Naranjo who were with her in Malaysia.
There was a time the athlete was having difficulty with training, Coach Jeaneth recalls. So while she’d send her meal plans, she didn’t want to be so strict. “I opted to show her more compassion and make the adjustments on my end so [Hidi] could cope with her nutrition needs and still able to do her training.”
Eventually, the Zamboangueña got back on track. Hidi would give updates on her weight once or twice a week, and openly tell Coach Jeaneth about her cravings. There were times she would crave for something sweet (cakes, doughnuts, or her favorite durian), salty (junk food, ramen). “It’s not anymore a request or a question of whether she can have it or not. She knows naman that I won’t say no, but I would adjust her program,” says the dietitian.
“She completely understands that I am a safe zone, when it comes to her nutrition. That she won’t be restricted unnecessarily and that she’ll still be able to get the results that are needed or wanted despite these cravings—which are totally normal pagdating sa isang athlete, especially for a female athlete who we know continually experiences hormonal changes.”
What the athletes ate
As for her other alagas, adjustments were minimal since Coach Jeaneth had worked with the national boxing team in the past. “Yung prioritization was based on who will compete for the day. Kasi apat sila. Doon ko i-stratify ano ang magiging nutrition management for the day.”
The challenge with boxers is that they have to weigh in before every match and stay within their weight category. Coach Jeaneth had to make sure they are the right weight the night before the fight, without neglecting their nutritional needs. “Hindi naman pwedeng wala silang kinain halos for the whole day tapos meron silang laro kinabukasan,” she says.
Weigh-ins happened early in the morning so she’d wake up as early as 4:30AM to be with the boxers at 6:15AM. The athletes would have 4 to 6 hours to allow their bodies to recover from the weigh in. She would bring food along so they could eat on the way to the venue.
“Hindi ako masyadong umiistambay sa dining hall. Many would expect me to be there the whole time. But I go with the athlete all the time, provide them their fueling needs. Kinukuha ko from the dining hall, dinadala ko sa athlete,” she says.
The Olympic dining hall was quite huge, says Coach Jeaneth, with lots of food selections, different cuisines. The athletes usually have rice, chicken, fruits and vegetables, even if there are sweets and ice cream and sodas available. She had to check on each athlete’s food tray, “especially for those who has weigh in. They also verify with me if portions and food selection are correct,” the coach tells ANCX. She shares that the night before her competition, Hidi just had rice and grilled chicken.
As for herself, she would help herself with the salad greens, the grilled salmon or chicken, and a few pieces of sushi. “On tiring days, I’ll have pizza and some pasta,” she says. “Or udon with grilled chicken.”
Getting lost in the village
Coach Jeaneth spent a total 23 days in Tokyo. Among the many highlights of her stay, there’s one specific day she will never forget—the day before Hidi’s competition (July 26). Since they had to make sure Hidi’s on the right weight, it was crucial to ensuring that the weighing scale in Hidi’s room is the same as the one to be used in the competition.
But Coach Jeaneth and Coach Julius accidentally took the wrong bus going to the weightlifting venue; the bus had the wrong signage. They ended up at the table tennis venue which was 30 minutes away from their intended destination. Booking an accredited taxi going to the weightlifting venue was a challenge because there was no WiFi where they were. They can’t just get any taxi because of strict safety protocols.
The coaches were very hungry. “My last meal was 6:30AM. It was already 1:30PM,” Coach Jeaneth recalls. Coach Julius, who speaks fluent Japanese, had to talk to some of the guys at the venue and request to have their cell phones connected to a hotspot so they could book a taxi. But the lines of accredited taxi providers were all busy. After 45 minutes, Coach Jeaneth was able to book a ride. It arrived after three minutes but it took them 30 minutes to get to the actual weightlifting venue.
When they arrived at the weightlifting venue, the Japanese staff won’t let Coach Jeaneth inside; she didn’t have a venue accreditation for that day particular day. Coach Julius had to talk to the Olympic staff again and explain how important it was for them to enter the venue. They were stuck waiting for 45 minutes before they were let in.
Finally, they were able to check the weighing scale—and they found out it was the same one Hidi had been using. “For us to be really sure about that, we had to go through that process,” she says. They had lunch at 4:30PM.
If they were stressed about the weighing scale the day before, the coaches were the picture of “chill” on the day of Hidi’s competition. “We were all calm. That was how we the coaches trained ourselves—to remain calm and composed,” she says. “That was really part of the strategy na we have to be composed and happy all the time. Hindi kami pwedeng magpakita [kay Hidi] na kami ay kinakabahan. And we were not really kabado. We were not anxious. We were calm. We were just enjoying the game.”
Coach Jeaneth’s attention was exclusively on Hidi that day. “I wasn’t aware about the other athletes, the weight that they were lifting etc. Wala akong napanood sa laban na yun maliban sa buhat ni Hidi.”She was not even aware that Hidi’s final lift was already meant for the gold medal. “Na-realize ko lang na [nakuha nya ang] gold medal nung umiiyak na sya sa stage. That was the only time I realized na, ‘We made it!’ Kaya yung iyak ko grabe,” she says.
Another moment Coach Jeaneth would never forget was when Nesthy Petecio embraced her and said sorry after her match. The boxer regretted not getting the gold, which she would have wanted to dedicate to her coaches. “Sabi ko, wala ka naman talagang dapat ipag-sorry. You won the silver and you are the winner. Alam naming lahat na ginawa nya ang magagawa nya.”
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games was an extraordinary experience for Coach Jeaneth. In an Instagram post, she only has words of gratitude to the Lord—for the sustained energy and health, for the wisdom and clarity of mind in stressful situations, for the people that allowed the Tokyo Olympics to run smoothly, and for bringing her home safe to her family.
Getting to compete in the Olympics is every athlete’s dream. As Coach Jeaneth puts it, it’s the pinnacle of any athlete’s sporting career. “There is nothing else one could aspire for higher than theOlympics,” she says. And we wouldn’t have performed as fabulously as we did if not for the expertise and support of wonderful, hardworking and dedicated coaches like Coach Jeaneth.
Photos courtesy of Coach Jeaneth Aro