MANILA, Philippines -- Hidilyn Diaz's gold medal in the Tokyo Olympics was the culmination of a long, difficult journey that at times made her want to give up altogether.
It was a journey that included a plea on social media for more financial support, allegations of involvement in a conspiracy to undermine President Rodrigo Duterte, and perhaps the most difficult of all -- a pandemic that caused the postponement of the Summer Games.
It was a journey that saw Diaz stuck in Malaysia for over a year, away from her family and friends, having to come up with creative ways just to train and stay in shape.
It's a journey that ended with Diaz at the top of the podium, the first Filipino to win an Olympic gold medal, having beaten a Chinese rival who was pegged as the favorite heading into the event.
"Hindi ako makapaniwala. Hindi ako makapaniwala," a still emotional Diaz said after the women's 55kg competition in weightlifting, held Monday night at the Tokyo International Forum.
"Na-sorpresa ako na nagawa ko 'yun. Kakaiba si God," she said in the mixed zone in an interview with Gretchen Ho of Cignal TV.
The Tokyo Olympics were Diaz's fourth stint in the Games, having first competed in Beijing 2008 as a wild card entry. She already earned her place in Philippine sporting history in 2016, when she won silver in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to end the country's 20-year medal drought.
But Diaz soldiered on, and she entered the Tokyo Games with the weight of an entire country on her shoulders as the Philippines' brightest hope for gold.
"Sa totoo lang, kinakabahan ako. Baka hindi ko magawa," said Diaz. "Pero the whole day, the whole week, sinasabi ko na I believe, I believe. Saka prepared ako."
"Sa lahat ng pinagdaanan ko, pinrepare ako ni God to be strong today," she added.
Diaz's confidence of winning an Olympic gold was bolstered in 2018, when she won the top prize in the Asian Games in Jakarta. But her road to the Tokyo Games hit a snag in June 2019, when she revealed that she was in dire need of more financial support.
That prompted a meeting with the Philippine Sports Commission, who insisted that they did not lack in support for the weightlifter.
It wasn't the only bump in the road for Diaz. Earlier that year, in May, she was linked to an alleged conspiracy to undermine Duterte, causing the weightlifter to fear for her safety and that of her family.
Indeed, Diaz recalled the incident even after her triumph in Tokyo.
"Sa totoo lang, ang dami kong pinagdaanan. After winning in the Olympics, ang hirap mag-sustain, nagkaroon pa ng matrix, 'di ba?" Diaz said. Incidentally, Ho, who was interviewing her, was also tagged in the "matrix."
"We decided, I have to stop in school para makapag-training. I sacrificed a lot. Hindi ko nakasama 'yung nanay and tatay ko for how many months and years na. Then sa training, siyempre masakit. Lahat masakit sa training. Pero may plano si God," she added.
The biggest roadbump for Diaz, however, was the COVID-19 pandemic. She was supposed to compete in an event in Colombia in March 2020 for what would have been her final qualifying event, but instead got stuck in Malaysia as the global health crisis forced the closure of borders worldwide.
"Nag-pandemic tayo, tapos na-stuck kami sa Malaysia, malaking bagay na gina-guide ako ni God. Tapos noon, nasa Malaysia kami, pinadala niya 'yung mga taong makakatulong sa amin para ma-survive namin 'yung pandemic. Sobrang thankful ako. Alam mo 'yun, nagte-training kami sa condominium. Talagang mahirap 'yung buhay that time," Diaz recalled.
She joined some online weightlifting competitions, but it wasn't until April 2021 that Diaz got to compete again in an actual, physical event -- the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Uzbekistan, where she finished in fourth place.
Two of the lifters who made the podium would compete in the Olympics -- China's Liao Qiuyun, and Uzbekistan's Muattar Nabieva. Diaz couldn't beat them in April, faltering in her final two lifts in the clean and jerk.
But she erased all doubt in Tokyo.
"Hindi ko alam na Olympic record na 'yung ginagawa ko," she said afterward, still sounding in disbelief. "Hindi din ako makapaniwala, andoon 'yung pangalan ko sa Olympic record. So, I'm really thankful. Grabe, grabe si God, grabe si God."
Diaz lifted 97kg in the snatch, an effort matched by China's Liao. Uzbekistan's Muattar set the Olympic record in the discipline with a lift of 98kg.
But Diaz was always stronger in the clean and jerk, and she immediately set the tone by lifting 119kg in her first attempt. Liao kept in step with her, coolly lifting 118kg in her first attempt, and 123kg in her second. Diaz one-upped her with a lift of 124kg in her second attempt to stay in first place.
Liao lifted 126kg in her third and final lift, for a total of 223kg. It came down to Diaz's final attempt, as she needed to lift 127kg to secure the gold.
A nation held its breath as Diaz stepped onto the platform, then exploded in ecstatic celebrations when she completed her lift. Diaz, even as she held the bar aloft, was already beginning to succumb to emotion as the magnitude of her achievement washed over her.
Her lift of 127kg in the clean and jerk was an Olympic record, as was her total of 224kg.
"Alam kong lahat ng paghihirap na pinagdaanan ko, may reason si God. Malaking bagay para sa akin. Worth it, worth it ang hirap," Diaz said after.
As she watched the Philippine flag be raised during the awarding ceremony, even the mask that Diaz had to wear due to COVID-19 protocols couldn't hide the emotions she felt.
And afterward, she made sure to dedicate the historic feat to a joyous nation that celebrated her as a hero.
"Nakaya natin. First time natin ito. Akala natin imposible, akala ko din imposible, 'tong pandemic, nasa pandemic tayo, imposible ang Olympics," Diaz said.
"Pero andito tayo ngayon. So, kaya natin. 'Wag kayong sumuko. Kahit anong challenges and trials 'yan, manalangin tayo kay God, magga-guide siya sa tin. Proud to be Pinoy."
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