Hidilyn Diaz in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

From Wildcard to Gold: The Lasting Impact of Hidilyn Diaz’s Olympic Journey

Although the Paris Olympics is no longer in the cards for Hidilyn Diaz, her journey is not yet over. The impact she’s made is only just beginning.

Hidilyn Diaz’s story has become almost like Filipino folklore at this point. As many know, she started lifting weights when she was only ten years old, and with limited resources, she had to use makeshift concrete barbells. And the rest? History — quite literally so, as she became the country’s first-ever Olympic gold medalist in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Although she may be known primarily for the Philippines’ lone gold (so far…), her journey as an Olympian that spanned 13 years, four Olympic appearances, and two medals has created a ripple effect and an impact that will last generations to come.

As a tribute to the woman who lifted an entire nation, let’s look back at Diaz’s Olympic journey and how every step she took was a step that would usher in future generations of Filipino athletes.

The journey to gold

Beijing 2008 — Given her track record for success, it often comes as a surprise to recall that when Hidilyn Diaz entered her first-ever Summer Games in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she was only a wild card selection. This means that she did not meet the minimum standards in the weightlifting Olympic qualifiers, but, under the policies of the International Olympic Committee, participating countries can still send athletes who meet a different set of standards.

At the time, Diaz was only 17 years old, and she was the first female weightlifter to ever compete for the Philippines at the Olympics. She may have only finished in 11th place out of 12 in her weight category, but this in itself was a feat not just for the sport, but for Filipina athletes as well.

London 2012 — When the 2012 Olympics rolled around, Diaz was no longer a wild card representative for the Philippines. She earned her spot in the Summer Games in the Continental and World Qualifying Tournaments, becoming the first Filipina weightlifter to enter two consecutive Olympic Games. With this, she was even chosen as the Philippines’ flagbearer.

Although she missed out on a podium finish for her category, the 21-year-old finished 12th out of 19 participants in her event, finishing with a personal best of 97kg in the snatch.

Hidilyn wins her first Olympic medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. (Photo credit: Hidilyn Diaz on Instagram)

Rio 2016 — After two failed attempts at a podium finish, Hidilyn Diaz entered the 2016 Rio Olympics aiming for a third-place finish in the women’s 53kg category. Third time’s a charm? The 25-year-old was about to find out.

Shooting for a bronze medal, Diaz surpassed her own goal. After recording 112kg in the clean and jerk, she finished second place in her event and won an Olympic silver medal. This in itself was history for the Philippines, as it marked the country’s first medal in the Summer Games in 20 years.

After ending a long medal drought, she was already hailed as a national hero when she returned from Rio. She came home to high praises, multiple awards, and incentives for her efforts, and she would use her earnings to start her own weightlifting gym, creating more accessibility for the sport. But for her, the job was not over.

Tokyo 2020 — After winning one Olympic medal, Diaz was hungry for another, and so when the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics rolled around, she traveled to Malaysia to train. However, due to the pandemic, not only were the Games postponed, but she was also stranded in Kuala Lumpur, where gyms were closed. With this, she had to return to her foundations as an athlete — she created makeshift barbells with bamboo sticks and heavy water bottles just to train.

This training set-up surely brought her back to her roots. Starting this journey some 20 years ago, she flew to Tokyo as a 30-year-old in 2021, ready to showcase that she has progressed every year since she first started.

Anyone who watched the Filipina complete her 127kg lift in the clean and jerk could never forget the look on her face when she realized that she set an Olympic weightlifting record and won the Philippines its first-ever gold medal. The entire nation celebrated her success as it proved to everyone that gold is indeed possible, and it enabled even more athletes to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams.

The moment Hidilyn Diaz realized she won the Olympic gold medal. (Photo credit: Hidilyn Diaz on Instagram)
Leaving a legacy

When Hidilyn Diaz first started her journey in the Olympics, she entered on her own. As a wild card and the first Filipina weightlifter to qualify for the Olympics, she was the country’s sole representative for the sport. Since then, she remained committed to her sport, continuing to fight for her place in succeeding editions, until she became the first Filipina athlete to qualify for four consecutive Olympic Games. But, even more than consistently earning a place for herself, she opened the door for even more athletes and weightlifters from the country.

Ever since her first entry into the Olympics, the number of weightlifting representatives from the Philippines has steadily increased. In 2016, she flew to Rio alongside Nestor Colonia who competed for the men’s side, and in 2021, she was joined by another female weightlifter, Elreen Ando.

And, as of writing, the Philippines currently has three weightlifting representatives getting ready for the 2024 Paris Olympics: Rosegie Ramos, John Febuar Ceniza, and Elreen Ando. Although Diaz herself was unable to make it this time around, her legacy is as apparent as it has ever been.

On top of this, the Olympic gold medalist has also dedicated herself to the sport in other ways. Using what she earned from her success in Tokyo, she has opened weightlifting gyms across the country and has been coaching other young athletes as well in hopes of bringing the sport to even more Filipinos.

Indeed, what Hidilyn Diaz has done for the Philippines goes far beyond the color gold.

Banner image from AFP.

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