At 5-foot-2, it is easy to overlook weightlifter Elreen Ann Ando as a member of the Philippine Olympic team. Runt of the litter, so to speak.
“Cute talaga po ang mga weightlifter (Weightlifters are really cute),” quipped Ando.
But make no mistake: the Cebuana mighty mite earned her spot on the national squad just like the rest of her 18 fellow Olympians in Tokyo by competing in international tournaments to merit her participation at the quadrennial meet.
A product of the youth development program of the weightlifting association, which now goes by the name of Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas under Monico Puentevella, Ando first made her presence felt at the 2016 Philippine National Games held in Lingayen town, Pangasinan.
A member of the national junior squad at 14, she dominated the women’s 64-kilogram division in the youth category, sweeping 3 golds in the Olympic-style sportsfest organized by the Philippine Sports Commission to scout new talents for international play.
“We recommended to the PSC to be included in our national pool because, just like Hidylin Diaz, we saw Ando’s potential and wanted to develop her talent while she was still young,” said weightlifting official Elbert Atilano, who discovered and groomed Rio Olympic silver medalist Diaz at the age of 10.
FAMILY OF HUMBLE MEANS
In recognition of her exploits, the University of Cebu made Ando an athletic scholar, providing her with an education as a high-schooler and a venue to hone her lifting skills.
Coming from a family of humble means, Ando is the youngest of six siblings whose mother passed away when she was 3 and whose aging father is unemployed, emerging as the virtual family breadwinner of together with an elder sister who is a domestic worker in Qatar.
With a little more experience under her belt, Ando debuted in the 30th Southeast Asian Games at Ninoy Aquino Stadium within the historic Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, lifting a total of 213 kilos for the silver medal, narrowly losing the gold to Vietnam’s Pham Thi Hong Tanh by one kilo.
She actually led the Vietnamese by 8 kilos after the snatch in hoisting 98 to the latter’s 90, only to be overtaken in the clean-and-jerk when Pham raised 124 kilos on her third and final attempt.
Ando, who had 115 kilos on her second try, tried to regain the lead and the mint but flubbed in her last attempt at 120 kilos.
A month later, the Cebuano placed sixth overall in the same weight class at the Roma 2020 World Cup in Italy with a total of 201 kilos after lifts 91 and 110 in the snatch and clean-and-jerk, respectively.
Ando said she was disappointed by her SEA Games debut and was back to training right away under former national team member turned coach Ramon Solis in Cebu even when the country went on lockdown in mid-March last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
STRONG SHOWING IN ASIAN MEET
The continuous hard work paid off handsomely for the pint-size lifter during the Asian weightlifting championships held last April 16 to 25 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, duplicating her total lifts of 213 kilos (94 kg in snatch, 119 in clean-and-jerk) in the 30th SEA Games to bag 2 silvers and 1 bronze medal.
Unknown to her and local weightlifting officials at that time, Ando’s strong showing in Tashkent would be the leverage she needed in qualifying for the Olympics for the first time.
She acknowledged that she no longer thought she would make it to Tokyo because she was way below the IWF world rankings in her class at 30th place as of May 2021, with the top eight athletes advancing to the Olympics
The cut-off date for the IWF announcement for the outright qualifiers was on June 11.
“Give up na po ako kasi ’yong ranking ko No. 30 sa IWF pa noong May, kaya akala ko po hindi na ako makakapasok sa Tokyo. (I gave up because my ranking in the IWF was still No. 30, so I didn’t think I would make it to Tokyo),” Ando said.
Puentevella had been batting for Boholano Vanessa Sarno, who bagged 3 golds in the 71kg class in Tashkent, as the wild card to join Diaz, who formalized her fourth straight Olympic appearance in the Tokyo Summer Games by placing fourth in the Asian meet.
Depending on the weight category in the men’s and women’s divisions, only 14 to 15 entries can see action in a weight class, limited to one weightlifter per country.
UNEXPECTED OLYMPIC BID
Lo and behold, Ando’s name was on the list of Olympic qualifiers in the women’s 64kg division released by the IWF from its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland on June 13.
While she did not make the outright cut, finishing No. 13 in the ratings of her weight division, the IWF awarded the athlete with the absolute continental ranking slot for Asia based on her runner-up finish in the Asian competition.
“Si ate Hidy (Diaz’s nickname) po ang nagsabi sa akin na nag-qualify ako. Masayang-masaya ako kasi hindi ako ini-expect na makapunta ng Tokyo. (It was ate Hidy who told me I had qualified. I was so happy because I no longer expected to make it to Tokyo),” Ando recalled.
The development was godsend to the athlete, who complained that she no longer had the proper equipment and supplies for her training, citing her worn-out weightlifting belt, and pair of weightlifting shoes in her practices with barely a month to go before the Tokyo Games.
“Nanghihiram na nga po ako ng weightlifting belt kasi sira na, tapos ’yong shoes ko sira na rin (I was already borrowing a weightlifting belt and my shoes were also ruined).,” Ando said
The PSC was quick to act on the Olympian’s plight through commissioner Ramon Fernandez, who was also in Cebu at that time and was informed of the problem.
Fernandez made it possible for the government sports agency to release a check worth P268,597 so Ando’s requirements were met a few days after she made it known.
The Cebuana acknowledged she was an unabashed admirer of her “ate Hidy,” whose humble beginnings were similar to her own.
“Inspirasyon ko po talaga si ate Hidy matagal na. Siya ang dahilan kung bakit ako nag-qualify sa Tokyo, dahil sa kanyang motivation sa amin at dedikasyon sa paglaro. (Ate Hidy has been my inspiration for a long time. She is the reason why I qualified for Tokyo, because of her motivation to us and her dedication to her sport),” Ando stressed.
Drawing inspiration from her national teammate and role model, expect the diminutive weightlifter to lift flag and country high with all her might when she competes in the Olympic women’s 64-kilogram event on Tuesday, July 27, at the Tokyo International Forum.
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