As Hidilyn Diaz celebrates her 32nd birthday, The GAME is honoring the life she has dedicated to uplifting the country through her sport.
In the Philippines, and even across the world, there is not too much of a need to explain who Hidilyn Diaz is. Her name is synonymous with the word icon as she is now, and has been for some time, one of the Philippines’ biggest athletes.
Today, February 20, 2023, Hidilyn Diaz turns 32 years old. And for the majority of her years, she has dedicated herself to one thing: weightlifting. But she would not have it any other way. And today, on her birthday, we are honoring the life she has spent working on the formula that drove her all the way to an Olympic gold medal win.
A not-so-ordinary teenage life
Hidilyn Diaz started lifting weights when she was only around 10 years old, but sports were always a part of her life growing up. As the fifth child out of six siblings, she grew up competitive. Thus, when she found out about weightlifting from her older cousins and saw that she was better at them at the sport, it somehow stuck.
Given her modest background, and without many resources available for the sport at the time, she would use a homemade concrete barbell to train and get better. It was former national weightlifter Elbert Atilano who took an interest in grooming Hidilyn to become the country’s next best in the sport. The first time the two met, he tested her immediately, and based on what he saw, he knew that she was fit to become a weightlifter. And so their journey began.
During her first few months at training, Atilano recalled that she did not miss any training sessions. He saw that she was dedicated enough to travel around 15 kilometers to a local gym just so that she could get the hours in.
A couple of years of serious training sessions later, and at 13 years old, Hidilyn became a member of the national weightlifting team. At that point, she was already winning and making a name for herself in various national competitions. From there, as a national athlete, she began to receive support from multiple sources, including the government, helping her to develop her talent.
By the time she was 16, she was already competing in her first major competition: the 2007 Southeast Asian Games. And right off the bat, she opened her career with a bronze medal in the 58kg category.
Just a year later, she was flying off to her first Olympic games.
The prime of her youth
Diaz entered her first Olympics in the 2008 Beijing Games, becoming the first female weightlifter to compete for the Philippines at the Summer Games. There, many may recall, the 17-year-old competed in the women’s 58kg category, where she broke the Philippine record that she had set in the previous SEA Games.
However, her performance was only able to land her 11th spot out of 12 in the category. Nonetheless, her progress throughout her career showed. And before turning 18, she was already considered one of the country’s most promising athletes on the international stage. It would take her a couple more Olympic appearances to finally crack into the podium.
Four years later, Hidilyn Diaz was once again on a plane to the 2012 London Olympics, representing the Philippines as the first Filipina to compete in two consecutive Summer Games. The 21-year-old waved the flag during the Opening Ceremony but was unable to make it to the podium on her second appearance.
Her age started to become a question. As a competition held only every four years, every appearance is an opportunity, and it is one that is never promised for the next time around. But, with her skill and determination that she has never failed to exhibit, even as a 10-year-old girl, the same applied in her mid-20s.
At the age of 25, most people are just starting to get their first jobs. But Hidilyn Diaz is unlike most people. At this stage of her life, she was getting her first Olympic medal.
In the 2016 Rio Olympics, her third appearance in the Summer Games, Hidilyn came into the competition hoping for at least a bronze medal finish. After all, an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, regardless of its color. But aiming for bronze, she shot for silver and landed on the second spot on the podium. And while many regard her gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as her most historic win — which, of course, always will be — the gold may have overshadowed the history she made in 2016 when she became the first Filipino woman to win a medal at the Summer Games.
It was also the Philippines’ first Olympic medal after a 20-year drought. And her success in 2016 gave her an even bigger platform to train and perform. When Hidilyn Diaz came home from the 2016 Olympic games, she was awarded incentives from the Philippine Sports Commission for her successes.
With her prizes, she was able to use what she had won to fulfill a big dream of hers: to build a weightlifting gymnasium in her hometown, Zamboanga City. Now, instead of lifting pails of water like she had to do to kickstart her passion for the sport, many young hopefuls have a platform to train and become athletes.
Already, not even having won the gold medal yet, Hidilyn was using her influence and success for the benefit of others. But, even though she gained support from local government agencies following her Olympic silver medal finish, she still lacked the backing she needed to make it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. In 2019, Diaz posted a message on her Instagram asking for financial assistance in her bid for the upcoming Summer Games.
“Sa tingin niyo okay lang kaya, nahihihya kasi ako pero try ko kapalan mukha ko para sa minimithi kong pangarap para sa atin bansa na maiwui ang gold medal sa Olympics,” she wrote on her Instagram story. Following this, she was able to gain support from the government, as well as the private sector.
And seeing how that turned out, anyone who offered assistance to Diaz can undoubtedly say that it was worth it.
Thriving at 30
Not every athlete makes it to four Olympic Games. But still ascending towards the peak of her career, Hidilyn Diaz was able to reach another appearance.
Postponed to 2021, Hidilyn came into the Tokyo Olympics as a 30-year-old. She was 13 years older than she was at her first appearance at the Games and a full 20 years since she started lifting makeshift weights. And although even she might say that through all those years, an Olympic gold medal win was somewhat unthinkable, all those years truly did prove to be her unique formula to that very achievement.
When Hidilyn Diaz climbed to the top step of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics podium, tears in her eyes and gold around her neck, she was carrying the honor of the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal. She came home a hero — to women, to children, to weightlifting hopefuls, to all Filipinos.
And ever since that historic win, she has not been able to live it down. She is arguably one of the biggest and most admired Filipino athletes around, and she has become a national icon.
But, Hidilyn was not done yet. Last year, to close her 31st year, Hidilyn etched another historic accomplishment, winning another gold medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in Colombia — her first gold and fourth medal overall at the annual event.
And to capture her influence and award her achievements for the country, Hidilyn was awarded the Philippine Sportswriters Association’s Athlete of the Year Award four times in the last seven years. But there remains one more event on the horizon.
As the clock winds down on the Paris 2024 Olympics, all eyes are on the Filipina gold medalist to repeat the success she found back in Tokyo. But, if she qualifies for the Games, by the time she arrives in Paris, she will be 33 years old. With this, many suspect that this may be Hidilyn’s fifth and final Olympic Games.
It took her nearly her whole life to get to where she is — years and years dedicated to the sport. And while we can only imagine the incredible amounts of sweat and time that she has put in to achieve what she has, there is certainly a lot more to the sacrifice than we could ever know about. But even when she eventually bids the competition goodbye, as every athlete must one day come to, for Hidilyn, there will be a lifetime after the lifting just as well.
The lifetime after the medals
When Hidilyn Diaz came home from the 2016 Olympics, she used the prizes she won from her silver medal win to build a weightlifting gym in Zamboanga City. And this was the beginning of something that Hidilyn would continue to do for the years to come. Not only have Hidilyn and her husband, Julius Naranjo, been training more weightlifters and athletes in the country, but they have also been creating a more widespread platform for the sport.
In fact, to celebrate her birthday today, she hosted a workshop for kids in Yaman at Bahay ni San Martin De Porres Bustos Bulacan, where they were able to try new sports like weightlifting and table tennis. On top of this, in October last year, Hidilyn and Julius donated weightlifting equipment to many different local government units around Metro Manila. This was geared towards creating a bigger platform for weightlifting grassroots in the country. After all, Hidilyn knows a thing or two about the importance of starting early.
But instead of starting by lifting pails of water, she is using her platform to give athletes the opportunity to start right, giving them even more of a way forward in the sport.
Hidilyn came from a very modest background. Her parents were not wealthy, and her family members had to work hard to support one another. But through the opportunity of sport, slowly but surely, she has been able to work her way towards a more comfortable life. With this, she recognizes the value of what sports can give athletes beyond the medals and success that come with them.
This is the legacy she is creating. And as she turns 32 today, she has another lifetime of legacies to leave, even beyond her time as a competitive athlete.