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How Hidilyn Diaz, a Woman, Smashed the Highest Glass Ceiling for Any Filipino Athlete

She may be the first, but she won't be the last.
by Ara Eugenio
Jul 27, 2021
Photo/s: VINCENZO PINTO / AFP
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Hidilyn Diaz on Monday lifted like never before, breaking not just a personal but an entire Olympic record as she hoisted a whopping 127-kg weight to secure the Philippines its first gold. 

The feat is the first for any Filipino athlete and was nearly a century in the making. But Diaz, whose nails were decked out in a Tokyo Olympics-inspired nail art, had one other mission all along: break Philippine sports' highest glass ceiling as a woman in a traditionally male sport. 

"Sa totoo lang magpapagawa sana ako ng Philippine flag kaya lang gabi na ako nakapunta," she told reporters of her last-minute stop to the salon prior to the competition. "Para makiuso" and to signify "women empowerment sa Olympics", Diaz instead embellished her nails with a sakura or cherry blossom design that had a gold medal and the Japanese words for "go winner".

In her silver win at the 2016 Rio Olympics where she broke a 20-year medal drought for the country and became the first Filipina to snag an Olympic medal of any color, Diaz had the Philippine flag on her nails.

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'Magiging Amazona ka'

It's no secret how the road to Olympic glory always ran parallel to Diaz's personal crusade to destroy gender conventions in sports. 

Throughout her 19-year career, Diaz struggled to come into terms with how all the heavy lifting built her body. Traditional beauty standards would frown at too pronounced muscles, and too much lifting is believed to compromise a woman's ability to bear children.

Diaz said these words came from her own mother, who first discouraged her from lifting weights. "Sabi niya, wag ka diyan, baka hindi ka mabubuntis at walang magkakagusto sayo. Magiging Amazona ka," she told Summit Media journalists in March.

The daughter of a tricycle driver father in a poor village near the port of Zamboanga in Mindanao, Diaz started with five-gallon (18 liter) jugs of water as makeshift barbells at age 11. Even as she was able to carve a path in the resource-strapped field of Philippine sports, her muscles, while proof of her strength, became her biggest insecurity growing up.

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It took a bad knee injury in 2014, two years away from her Rio victory, for Diaz to realize how much she loved being a muscled up woman. "Kasi ito yung sports na pinapa-feel sakin na belong ako. Pinapafeel sakin na malakas ako," she said.

"Dun ko narealize na andaming naibigay sa akin ng weightlifting. Dun ko narealize kung gaano ako katagal na sa weightlifting. Tapos sabi ko, mahal ko pala ang weightlifting.. Dapat ko pala i-appreciate yung sports ko, dapat ko rin i-appreciate yung mga muscles ko," she said. 

Dream of 'not being the last' trumps being first

Diaz said she still couldn't believe that she made sports history, especially during an Olympics that was hobbled by the pandemic.

In the past year, after she made the difficult decision of quitting school to focus on training, Diaz battled gym closures, lack of access to weightlifting equipment, and of course, financial struggles of being overseas with an entire team with her. 

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Before she started preparing for the Olympics, Diaz was accused of taking part in an ouster plot against President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019. Though unfounded, it made her the subject of online trolling that earned her the harshest critics among fellow countrymen whom she's lifted all of her life for, all to bring them pride. 

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All that weight, in addition to the record-breaking 127-kg, were in her shoulders on Monday. 

"Nasurprise ako na nagawa ko yun," Diaz said, revealing how she's never successfully lifted that heavy of weight before as in her practices, she would try and fail, ending up in tears. She thanked everyone who stayed with her throughout her journey, making special mention of God and Team HD. 

Tokyo is not the end for Diaz, despite her age. Back home, people are already the running numbers on how the Olympic victory will keep her financially set for life. But reaping these rewards seem to be the last in her thoughts, as she revealed the 2021 Sea Games and World Weightlifting Championships are on the agenda. 

During her unconventional trainings in Malaysia, Diaz was often joined by local children who, despite noting how she was "not smiling",  was inspired by her to also learn how to lift weights.

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In many interviews before, she would always say her ultimate dream was to one day open a weightlifting camp for girls, as more than being the first Filipina Olympic gold medalist, the goal has always been to make sure she won't be the last to do it.

"Hindi pwedeng after winning, susuko na ako. Alam niyo naman na I need to continue to inspire the young generation to still dream... Alam mo yung standard ng sports bumababa kaya kailangan tuloy-tuloy hanggang may sumunod sa akin," said Diaz, who has repeatedly urged authorities to be consistent in their support for Filipino athletes. 

"Please, maging fan kayo ng sports. First time natin to. Akala natin imposible itong Olympics dahil sa pandemic, pero andito tayo ngayon so kayang-kaya natin. Wag kayong sumuko," she said.

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