It is no idle boast, but Elbert Atilano firmly believes that Hidilyn Diaz would have hoisted the weightlifting gold in the Tokyo Olympics Games last year had it not been postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Kung hindi na-postpone at 2020 talaga naglaro, gold talaga si Hidy (Diaz’s nickname). Ngayon 1 year na, naka-recover yong mga kalaban niya,” said the Zamboanga City-based Atilano of his protégé.
(Had the Tokyo Olympics not been postponed and went on in 2020, Hidy would have won gold for sure. Now that it was reset for a year, her rivals have recovered.)
No one perhaps knows Diaz better as an athlete than the former national weightlifting coach and Universidad de Zamboanga professor, who now serves as one of the picturesque seaport city’s councilors.
And while some may claim credit, it has been Atilano’s guiding hand all along that was behind Diaz’s rise in the world weightlifting arena, the major architect of the Zamboanga City pride clinching the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Not only was she the first weightlifter and Filipina to contribute to the country’s medal tally, her feat ended a 20-year-old medal Philippine drought in the quadrennial meet since boxer Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco bagged the silver in the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games.
STARTED AT 10
As members of the Universidad de Zamboanga’s weightlifting squad, it was Diaz’s cousins who brought the small, stocky yet sturdy-looking girl to Atilano’s attention when she was 10 years old.
“Hidy apparently had nothing to do so we tried her out. I saw her physique, her agility and form. Right there and then, I told her cousins right away that this girl would give our country a medal in the Olympics,” he said.
He surmised that Diaz’s lifting skills and strength were the product of carrying heavy pails of water over her shoulders at that age from the public water pump in her humble neighborhood in Barangay Mampang, 10 kilometers from the city proper, to earn her school allowance.
“Hidy would earn around P5 to P10 from her efforts,” recalled Atilano, who once attended a judging course with Romanian Tamas Ajan, the International Weightlifting Federation president from 2000 to April 2020.
Besides her skill and ability, he said Diaz was dedicated and patient, an attitude that steadily lifted her from obscurity as she won local and international competitions regularly.
Due to her precocious talent, Diaz drew a wild card by the IWF through the representation of the Philippine Weightlifting Association and was the country’s youngest campaigner at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games at the age of 17, placing 11th out of the 12 athletes in the women’s 58-kilogram class.
Her growing popularity, however, seemed to have gone to the athlete’s head.
She displayed a stubborn streak in the 2012 London Olympics, where she otherwise earned the distinction as the country’s flag-bearer, according to Atilano.
While becoming only the first weightlifter to make it to the Summer Games twice in a row, Diaz bombed out in the women’s 58-kg class, scratching in the clean-and-jerk as her barbell slipped on her third and last attempt at 118 kilos.
“Hidy was controlling her coach and not the other way around,” Atilano disclosed, an attitude that also apparently cost her the gold in the 2013 Myanmar Southeast Asian Games in the new Burmese capital of Naypyidaw.
Ignoring her coach’s instructions, Diaz wound up with a silver in the women’ 58-kg category, Atilano recalled.
Due to her attitude problems, the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Philippine Sports Commission, which was bankrolling her training and participation in overseas meets, was close to giving up on her, according to the coach.
“Diaz became depressed so she thought of leaving for the US in 2014 and was willing to quit her weightlifting career. She already had a 10-year visa to America at that time,” Atilano said.
CRACKING THE WHIP
As the PWA training director, he was not about to abandon his protégé, aiming to whip Diaz back into mental and competitive shape, as long as she obeyed him to the letter.
Atilano said that the first order of the day was for Diaz to go down 5 kilos and compete in the 53-kg class, “because I knew that if she went down she had the capacity to be No. 1 in the world. At 58 kilos, she had no chance and would just be No. 8 to or 9 in the weight division.”
He said he wanted her to become “sexy” by slimming her down and tapped the PSC nutritionist, Jeaneth Aro, to watch and monitor her diet.
“At first she didn’t like the meals prepared for her, telling me she would try, because that was her usual habit,” the mentor said, “but I told Hidy there was no ifs or buts. This would make or break her career.”
The second thing Atilano did was to replace the athlete’s former coach with Alfonsito Aldanete, a fellow Zamboanga native, to oversee Diaz’s training program in the national team.
A former national standout and ex-Navyman, Aldanete brooked no opposition from the usually headstrong Diaz, he said.
HARD WORK REWARDED
With Aldanete acting as Atilano’s alter ego, the fruits of Diaz’s labors were seen in 2015 when she bagged 3 golds in her new weight class at the Southeast Asian weightlifting championships held in Thailand because Singapore decided to scrap the discipline in the 28th SEA Games.
With renewed confidence, the lifter continued to flourish at the Asian weightlifting championship held in September in Phuket, Thailand, sweeping the golds in the snatch (96 kg), clean-and-jerk (118 kg) and total lifts (214 kg).
“Hidy emerged as the most outstanding lifter in Phuket because of her performance,” Atilano remembered. “We then took her to the world championships in November in Houston, Texas because most of her opponents were there.”
No longer dazzled by the bright lights on the global stage, Diaz acquitted herself well in Houston, bagging 3 bronze medals in the snatch (106 kg), clean-and-jerk (117 kg) and total lifts (213 kg), to merit her third consecutive Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2016.
“From June of that year, Hidy took part in 6 international competitions and brought home medals each time. Panalong-panalo na siya. Hindi kagaya ng dati, talo-panalo. Tuloy na sa Olympics (She was in winning form unlike before when she would win or lose. It was on to the Olympics),” Atilano observed.
RIO OLYMPIC BREAKTHROUGH
Diaz continued to refine her execution under Aldanete’s tutelage and was primed to do well in the Brazilian carnival capital famed also famed for its beaches, he said, while acknowledging not too many expected her surprise silver-lined outcome.
With only the total lift counted for the medal, Diaz was more or less assured of bronze with her combined lift of 200 kilos after hoisting 88 kilos in the snatch and 112 in the clean-and-jerk at the Riocentro exhibition center on August 7, 2016.
As fate would have it, Chinese top favorite and reigning world champion Li Yajun, who had the best lift of 101 kilos in the snatch and the last to perform, got eliminated after failing on all three tries at 126 kilos in the clean-and-jerk for a colossal debacle.
This paved the way for Chinese-Taipei’s Hsu Shu-ching, who was running second (212), to snatch the gold, Diaz silver, and South Korea’s Yoo Jin-hee (200) bronze.
Just a few months after the hotly contested national polls, her performance sparked jubilation in a nation eager for some good news, treating the new Rio Olympic hero with a red carpet welcome once she touched down at Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 a few days later.
An airwoman 2nd class, Diaz was surrounded by Philippine Air Force brass at her airport arrival where they announced that she was being promoted to airwoman 1st class, just one of so many benefits she received for her accomplishment.
From Manila, she was shortly whisked away to Davao City, where a delighted President Rodrigo Duterte sweetened the pot by adding another P2 million to her financial reward.
MORE WINS TO COME
As her confidante and adviser, Atilano said that Diaz easily collected a cool P20 million in all, including commercial endorsements and other perks, as numerous companies scrambled for her services so they could associate with her Olympic accomplishment.
Her string of wins extended into to 2018, where she wound up on top of the heap with a golden finish at the 2018 Asian Games in the women’s 55-kilogram division with a lift of 207 kilos, narrowly beating by one kilo Turkmenistan’s Kristina Sermetova, who settled for silver.
It was another epic feat since it was the first gold won by a Filipino weightlifter in the 67-year history of the Asiad since the inaugural edition in 1951 in New Delhi.
The SEA Games gold that eluded her grasp in Myanmar fittingly came in front of her compatriots during the 30th SEA Games at the heritage-rich Ninoy Aquino Stadium on December 2, 2019.
Inspired by the packed Filipino gallery, she lifted a total of 211 kilos, 14 heavier than Vietnamese silver medalist Nguyen Tri Huy (197).
Flushed with her SEA Games win, Diaz topped the Roma World Cup, an Olympic qualifying ranking tournament, in January 2020, sweeping 3 golds with lifts of 93 kilos in the snatch, 119 in the clean-and-jerk and 212 in combined lifts, respectively.
STRANDED IN MALAYSIA
But her Olympic aspirations were placed on hold when COVID-19 engulfed the world in the first quarter of 2020, stranding her and her coaching staff of Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen and Guamanian fitness trainer Julius Naranjo in Malaysia, becoming her permanent camp for the duration of the year and well into 2021.
Needimg just one international competition to meet the IWF Olympic requirement of five to make the Tokyo Summer Games, Diaz formalized her fourth consecutive Olympic appearance with a fourth-place finish at the Asian weightlifting championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan last April.
Atilano said he was among those who noted her sub-par form and talked to her about it shortly after her performance in the Uzbek capital.
“Hidy confided in me that she insisted on her way and ignored coach Gao’s instruction. Tumigas na naman ang ulo (She became hard-headed again),” the Zamboanga city councilor, who kept in constant communication with the athlete, said.
“I told her to focus on her performance and leave the other details to her coach, not minding other distractions,” Atilano stressed. “She wants to be her own manager and coach at times that she loses her focus. Dapat making siya sa diskarte ng coach at wala nang iba (She should listen to her coach and no one else).”
FAITH IN HIDILYN'S EXPERIENCE, ABILITY
Nonetheless, he believes that his prized ward has what it takes to garner what no Filipino athlete has ever done since the country began competing in the Olympics in Paris in 1924.
“She recently showed me a video and I saw marked improvement in her form. Hidy has a strong chance for gold if she can execute this properly in Tokyo,” Atilano insisted.
Standing in the way of Diaz, 30, is China’s Liao Qiuyun, who is 4 years younger and is the reigning world and back-to-back Asian champion, earning her the No. 1 spot in the IWF ratings ahead of the Filipina No. 2.
In their last face-off, Liao ruled the Tashkent meet in tallying 98 kilos in the snatch, 124 in the clean-and-jerk and 222 in total lifts and Diaz had 94, 118 and 212, respectively, or a difference of 10 kilos overall.
All things considered equal, Atilano, however, pointed out that it is usually a keen fight among the top five in the rankings.
“All of them are practically of equal strength so it’s anybody’s game. It’s all a matter of focus, and leave it to the coach to be nervous, not the athlete,” he said, adding that Diaz’s experience could spell the difference when the Olympic women’s 55-kilogram event is held on Monday, July 26.
“Just like a vintage car, all you need to do is to keep her (Diaz) in fine condition,” said Atilano, who, like the rest of her fans back home, is hoping that the weightlifter has more than enough left in her tank to fuel her Olympic drive for gold.
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