With their eyes glued to a television in Zamboanga, the family of weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz yelled "push, push, push!" as she hoisted the bar to win the country's first Olympic gold medal.
"Then we erupted in joy—we were shouting, some shed tears of joy," Emelita Diaz said Tuesday, a day after watching her daughter's historic performance in Tokyo—far from her hometown of Zamboanga.
"We didn't know what to feel because we were extremely happy."
After nearly 18 months training in exile in Malaysia because of COVID-19 restrictions, Diaz smashed her personal best and won gold with a final clean and jerk of 127kg in the women's 55kg class.
The 30-year-old's triumph—which followed her silver medal in Rio five years ago—has made her a national hero, alongside the likes of boxing legend Manny Pacquiao.
"Thank you, Hidilyn Diaz, for the first-ever Olympic Gold for the Philippines! We are so proud of you!" Pacquiao tweeted from the United States where he is training for his upcoming fight against American Errol Spence.
The feat is also a life-changing windfall for Diaz, the daughter of a tricycle driver on the southern island of Mindanao.
As a reward for winning gold, Diaz will receive at least P33 million ($655,000) from the government and private sector, as well as a house.
Property developer Megaworld Corporation also announced Tuesday it would give the Philippine Air Force woman a residential condominium worth P14 million.
It could also prove a "game-changer" for other Filipino athletes, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Tuesday, acknowledging government financial support was insufficient.
"It's as if our athletes are only getting minimum wage," he said.
'We feel empowered'
Diaz's stunning victory was splashed across the front pages of Philippine newspapers and dominated internet platforms.
One newspaper’s headline, "Finally, Olympic Gold," reflected the collective relief of Filipinos at winning their first gold medal after 97 years of Olympic competition.
Diaz's win was an inspiration for other women, said Karen Afurong, an instructional designer in Manila.
"We feel empowered," the 29-year-old said.
Emelita said the family spoke with Diaz Tuesday morning and congratulated her.
"I told her... 'It's a big honor to our family that you brought another honor to the country'," Emelita said.
More than 20 relatives, including nieces and nephews, crowded onto the porch of the family home to watch Diaz's performance, using a smartphone connected to their television.
"We were nervous," said Emelita.
"They were shouting 'push, push, push', get it, Haidie!'. They were shouting and jumping for joy."
Diaz has not seen her family since December 2019 and has spoken openly of the sacrifices she has made in pursuit of her dream.
But after a sleepless night, Diaz said Tuesday she was already thinking about the Paris Olympics in 2024.
"Qualifying will be difficult, but if my strength is there I will continue," she told reporters on Zoom.
"I cannot quit after winning. I need to continue until someone succeeds me."
But in the aftermath of her victory, Diaz said she would momentarily forget the years of exile, sacrifice, training, and nutrition that took her to the Philippines' first Olympic gold by tucking into her favorite sweet passions—cheesecake and bubble tea.
"Yes, I will eat a lot tonight," she said with a smile.
"I mean I've been sacrificing my food, and this is the time to celebrate together with the people who are behind me. So I'm really thankful I can eat now, yes," said the 30-year-old who stands just 5ft 1in tall.
Diaz, 30, was already assured a place in her country's sporting folklore as the only woman from the sprawling archipelago ever to win an Olympic medal when she took a surprise silver in the 53kg class in Rio five years ago.
That ended a 20-year medal drought for the country that first competed on the Olympic stage in 1924 in Paris.
She was determined to turn Rio silver into Tokyo gold and recruited top Chinese coach Gao Kaiwen two months before picking up her country's first weightlifting Asian Games gold in Jakarta in 2018.
Gao, who has also been head coach of the Chinese national women's army team, "made a difference in my lifts," said Diaz. "He's a positive person and I like to have him around me."
Gao has coached multiple Chinese Olympic medallists, including 2012 women's superheavyweight gold winner Zhou Lulu.
His experience has been invaluable to Philippines Air Force servicewoman Diaz, who has blossomed late in her weightlifting career—she did not threaten the podium in her first two Olympic appearances at Beijing and London.
Gao introduced new routines and heavier weights in training before she enlisted a second coach, Julius Naranjo, into what she calls "Team HD." Since then, the progression in her lifting has been phenomenal.
Diaz lifted 92kg in the snatch and 115kg in the clean and jerk three years ago to win the Asian Games, 7kg greater than her Olympic silver medal total.
On Monday in Tokyo, she shattered those marks, albeit at a weight division 2kg heavier, with a 97kg snatch and a flawless series of 119kg, 124kg and 127kg in her three clean and jerk attempts.
It is all the more remarkable because Diaz has been living in exile in Malaysia since February last year due to the Covid pandemic.
Looking forward to enjoy life
She had to put on hold her life outside of sport—her family, her air force career, college studies and managing her weightlifting gym in her hometown of Zamboanga on the southern island of Mindanao.
Now she can't wait to go home.
"I'm looking forward to enjoy life because I have been in Malaysia for, I don't know, almost two years so I'm really thankful I can go home now and celebrate with my family and the people who support me," she said after being presented with her gold medal.
The daughter of a tricycle driver in a poor village near Zamboanga, Diaz has not seen her family since December 2019.
She initially went to train in Malaysia in February 2020 because Gao thought it would be better for her as she focused on qualifying for Tokyo.
But within weeks came COVID-19 restrictions, leaving Diaz to battle gym closures, lack of access to weightlifting equipment, and the grinding uncertainty of whether the Games would be held at all.
For months Diaz and "Team HD" were stuck in an apartment block in the capital Kuala Lumpur where they had to be careful not to crack the tiled floor while training with weights.
But the tireless Diaz still managed to find time to raise money through online training sessions to distribute food packages to poor families back home who were suffering during coronavirus lockdowns.
In October last year, she relocated to the southern coastal state of Malacca where they have been living in a house owned by a Malaysian weightlifting official.
She began using a nearby gym, but restrictions were tightened again, forcing her to work out in the house's sweltering open-air carport for the last few months.
Now all the hardship has been rewarded and she will be given a hero's welcome when she returns to the Philippines.
"I don't know if I'm a national hero," she said.
"But I'm thankful that God used me to inspire all the young generation and all the Philippines people to keep fighting during this pandemic."
"I want to say to the young generation in the Philippines, 'You can have this dream of gold too'. This is how I started and finally I was able to do it,” she said.
Meanwhile, presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Tuesday denied linking Diaz to an alleged plot to oust President Rodrigo Duterte in 2019, saying his office has no idea of the matrix naming Diaz in the plot.
“I don’t know what matrix you are talking about because in my office, and there’s only one official government spokesperson, which is me, we don’t have anything like that,” Roque said.
The Palace official also said there is no need for him to apologize because he did not accuse Hidilyn Diaz of anything.
The matrices referred to were the ones presented by former Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo, who is the current chief presidential legal counsel.
Panelo served as spokesperson of President Duterte in 2019, prior to the appointment of Roque.
Diaz was accused of “collaborating” with Rodel Jayme, a webmaster who reportedly spread the controversial “Ang Totoong Narco-list” series online. Diaz denied the allegation.
Because of the report, Diaz admitted that she feared for her life, as she was being bombarded by bashers on social media.
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