The words formed in the outer edges of her consciousness, falling one by one into her darkening mind in an unending cadence. Loser. Failure. Loser. Failure. Loser. Failure. The days, weeks, months and even years that followed the 2012 Olympics were filled with sob-soaked introspection, all of which was repeatedly leading Hidilyn Diaz to the same conclusion.
“I wanted to quit,” she told the Inquirer.
It was the lowest point of the country’s top weightlifter. Four years prior, she was a wide-eyed newbie at the Beijing Olympics, soaking in every bit of experience as a wild-card entry in her sport. There were little expectations of her. She had little expectations of herself.
But in London, she qualified for the Summer Games and had every reason to dream of a credible performance “not for myself,” she said. “but for the country and the Filipino people.”
She failed. Terribly.
“I did not finish,” she said in Filipino. That’s putting it mildly. There are still remnants of that defeat, literal snapshots of Hidilyn Diaz lying on her back, a dropped barbell by her feet, after failing her lift in London. “I used to think a lot about what people say about me. And in my mind I felt I failed the Filipino people. I felt that I was a loser.”
What exactly happened in 2012? Why did she buckle amid high hopes by sports officials who even designated her the Philippine flag-bearer?
“Why? Pressure,” she said.
It was a spiral from that point.
Prayed for a purpose
“After two weeks, I kept on crying. I didn’t know my purpose; I didn’t know my reason [for being]. In 2014, I got injured and it felt that I lost everything. I did not get to play in the Asian Games. I did not play in the World Championship. People were putting me down.”
“So I [prayed]. Lead me to my purpose, Lord,” Diaz said.
That same year, Diaz found herself in her hometown in Zamboanga. She stumbled on young kids training in a weightlifting gym. There, in a gym that was decrepit and had outdated, creaky equipment, Diaz found what she prayed for.
She had found her purpose.
“I knew I wanted to give them a better gym,” she said.
Something was lit inside of her and she felt the warmth of an answered prayer.
“They (kids) became my motivation,” Diaz said. “They ignited [the fire] in my heart. I didn’t want them to go through what I had to go through, my journey in the Olympics.”
She wanted their path to greatness cleared from the usual obstructions that hinder Philippine athletes from seizing their dreams. “I wanted to change the system in weightlifting. Whenever I wanted to give up, they were my reminders that I don’t want my sport to be ruled by politics. I want officials to listen to the needs of weightlifters.”
“I’m getting older. Those kids are the next [generation]. What if they are not as tough? What if they don’t have my mind-set? What if their willpower is not as strong as mine?”
If sports leaders disappoint them, Diaz said, “we might not have future athletes anymore.”
Picking herself up
And so little by little, she picked herself up. She punished her body and worked it to as close to perfection as possible. She underwent a rigorous diet that starved her of her favorite culinary treats. She asked for a reason to rise from the ashes of her 2012 defeat and when that purpose was handed to her, Diaz wanted to make sure faith was repaid.
One by one the words that filled her mind and soul with so much negativity disappeared, replaced by images of young kids working hard in training, making do with rickety equipment inside an old gym. Their dreams became her dream. Their innocent fire became the passion that burned inside her.
Silver in Rio
And the hard work paid off. She won an unexpected silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, setting her up for a cash windfall, part of which she used to put up her own gym for aspiring weightlifters in her hometown.
But she wasn’t done yet.
The Asian Games beckoned and Indonesia offered her yet another opportunity.
“I really wanted to win the gold in Indonesia. It was going to be harder because in the Olympics, nobody really expected me to win. In the Asian Games, everyone expected me to win. Even I expected to win the gold,” Diaz said.
But as competition day drew near, a familiar demon began to haunt her.
She recognized it almost instantly, even if it was six years since she came face-to-face with it.
“I felt the same pressure I felt when I was in London [in 2012],” said Diaz.
But she no longer buckled. She knew she was rebuilt into a stronger version of herself.
“I reminded myself God has a purpose for me,” she said.
That purpose motivates her, keeps her going. That purpose emboldens her to dream bigger dreams, like going for an Olympic gold in Tokyo 2020. Immediately after declaring her goal in a room filled with journalists during a lunch hosted by St. Benilde in honor of the school’s Asiad winners, Diaz gasped and covered her mouth with her hands, realizing the spotlight she put on herself between now and 2020. Then, with a sheepish smile, she put her hands together as if in prayer, the fingertips touching her lips.
The road to Tokyo will be challenging, at best. But Hidilyn Diaz is no longer scared. She is armed with faith and that faith armed her with a purpose.
“I [was once] just a little girl who got curious about weightlifting. And now they say I’m a hero in Philippine sports. You’ll never know, there might be another little girl out there in Zamboanga like me. I didn’t think highly of myself before, but weightlifting changed my life.”
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