The Mind of an Olympian: An Interview with Hidilyn Diaz

If I had to pick one word to describe three-time Olympian, Hidilyn Diaz, I would choose “gracious.”  Hidilyn is visiting Guam for the week, and she agreed to let me interview her before her weightlifting practice.  Unfortunately, I didn’t think things through very well, and I ended up conducting the interview while sitting on some tires behind the gym.  The music in the gym was very loud, and all of the seats were occupied by active weightlifters, so we headed out the back door.  I scanned the area for a suitable sitting surface and hastily decided that some tires lying on the ground would do just fine.  I sat down, and Hidilyn joined me without hesitation.

Hidilyn’s unassuming attitude became all the more impressive once I learned more about her.

Hidilyn (pronounced Heidi Lynn), age 26, has competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2012 London Olympics, and the 2016 Rio Olympics.  At age 17, Hidilyn was the youngest competitor in the women’s 58-kg weight class at the 2008 Bejing Olympics.  And in 2016, Hidilyn became the first Filipino woman to ever win an Olympic medal when she earned a silver medal in Rio.

Hidilyn Diaz (image from http://www.philstar.com)

Hidilyn began weightlifting at age 11.  Her cousin, a university student, was coaching a group of young boys in weightlifting.  Hidilyn asked to join them, and her cousin began training her.  She began competing soon after and was offered a place on the Philippine national team at age 12. Membership on the national team offered a number of perks.  Hidilyn received a scholarship to attend school.  She was able to travel and see the world when she competed.  Most importantly, though, she was able to help provide for her family with her monthly stipend of 4000 Pesos (about $80).

Hidilyn explained: “My family was poor.  I lifted weights to provide for my family.  I was the breadwinner.”

I asked Hidilyn when she developed a passion for weightlifting.  I was surprised when she said, “2014.”  By 2014, Hidilyn had already been in the sport for 12 years and competed in two Olympic Games!

Hidilyn explained, “2014 was a difficult year for me.  I injured my knee, and recovery was taking a long time.  My performance suffered.  My coach of ten years was fired from the national team, and I felt lost.  I was injured, had no coach, and was beginning to wonder if I should just retire.”

“Mentally, it was very difficult.  I had no one guiding me, and I had to decide for myself if weightlifting was what I wanted to do.”

After taking time to reflect, Hidilyn decided to continue her training and aim for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.  A friend pointed out that Hidilyn could contend for a medal if she dropped into the 53-kg weight class.  Hidilyn made the weight drop, trained hard, and secured a silver medal in Rio becoming the first Filipino in 20 years to win an Olympic medal.

Hidilyn continues to train for four hours a day, while simultaneously attending college to earn a degree in business.  She hopes to make a fourth Olympic appearance at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

In the future, Hidilyn wants to own her own business.  She also wants to raise awareness of weightlifting in the Philippines, serve as a mentor to younger weightlifters, and use her experience to help other coaches develop their weightlifters.  Consider these points of advice from Hidilyn:

To Coaches:

“It is important to spend time on mobility as well as general strength and conditioning.”  Focusing only on weightlifting exercises can lead to injuries, boredom and burnout.

Also, “Always look for ways to innovate.  Constantly seek new ways to challenge your athletes and keep things interesting for them. “

To Youth Weightlifters:

“Enjoy weightlifting first.  Then, dream high.  It is the dream that will fuel you.  You also need to work hard, but be smart.  Sometimes weightlifters work hard, but it is not productive because they are not getting enough rest.  You need to rest.  Take advice from others.  Practice self-discipline and consistency in training.  One of the hardest things about weightlifting training is being consistent.”

Advice on Competing:

“Above all, you must believe in yourself.  When you step onto the platform, if you do not believe that you can lift the weight, it will not happen.”

 

 

Picking Up Metal: Youth Weightlifting in the Philippines

This is Lovely, an accomplished 13-year old Filipino weightlifter.  She has won numerous championship titles, including the Philippine youth national championship.  Lovely trains with Team Angono six days a week, 2 hours a day.  She is currently on the waiting list for the Philippine national team.

This is Lovely’s home.

                                                                      

I watched out the van window as a toddler played with a broken pink headband and a dirty toy gorilla under the overpass of a crowded Manila highway. A teenage boy, possibly his brother, sat nearby transferring bottles from one plastic bag to another. As we continued our drive, I spotted more and more street children—sleeping on the sidewalk, begging for money between lanes of slow moving traffic, selling handmade flower necklaces. These children—filthy, barefoot and unattended—jolted me out of my self-absorbed reality and sobered my thoughts.

My son, Hutch, and I had traveled to Manila in the Philippines for the Metro Weightlifting Championship held on December 16. Prior to seeing these children, I was thinking about how I was going to lose a kilogram of bodyweight in the next 24 hours. After seeing the children, though, my weight loss concerns were forgotten. Who cares about bodyweight when there are children—children—on the streets barely surviving?

It is not right. It is not okay. Children should be in school. They should be spending their free time playing sports or games. They should not be struggling for survival, without adequate clothing and nutritious food to eat. Someone should do something about this.

This photograph, featured in the U.K.’s Daily Mail, shows a girl scavenging for metal and other recyclable materials in a garbage dumpsite in Manila. Many children in Manila help support their families with this activity.

A few days later, I met Coach Pep . . .

Coach Richard “Pep” Agosto is a former member of the Philippine National Weightlifting Team. Pep was an accomplished weightlifter, medaling in numerous international competitions, including the Southeast Asian Games. While Pep was still on the national team, he witnessed the extreme poverty of children in his neighborhood and started a program to give them a better life through weightlifting.

Pep identified some neighborhood children who were scavenging in the dump and asked if they would like to train with him instead.  Pep offered to pay for the kids’ schooling and feed them if they would train with him each day.  The children’s parents initially refused Pep’s offer because it meant less money for their families.  However, Pep convinced the parents that weightlifting and school were investments in the children’s futures.

While in Manila, I had the privilege of meeting Coach Pep and his weightlifting team.

When we arrived at Pep’s gym, a small, covered outdoor area next to his house, Pep’s weightlifters greeted us with smiles. The weightlifters, ranging in age from 9-18, were eager to show off their skills.

Given the children’s impoverished circumstances, I expected very little from them athletically. I was surprised. Pep’s weightlifters are powerful and technically polished. They rival any youth weightlifters I have seen in the United States or Germany.

 

Pep’s lifters have won numerous competitions in the Philippines, including the national championship, and have set new national records for their age groups. Two of his lifters are even on the waiting list to join the national team. Membership on the national team will open new doors of privilege, giving the kids better training opportunities and a generous monthly stipend.

More importantly, though, Pep’s training gives the kids a path to escape from their impoverished circumstances. When possible, they travel to competitions and see the world outside of their neighborhood. Pep’s program also gives them the opportunity to go to school, a privilege that is not afforded to all children in the Philippines. It is giving the kids tools to make better lives for themselves.

Training is a luxury most Filipino kids cannot afford. Training means less money for the children’s families since the kids are not spending time earning money for the family. To compensate the families for the loss of money, Pep feeds the children and pays for them to go to school. In return, they train every day with Coach Pep. They are especially motivated to show up to training because it means they get two meals that day, instead of the single meal they would receive at home.

How does Pep do It?

In the United States, a coach like Pep would have social resources to help him with his program. In the Philippines, however, these resources are not available.

Pep funds the entire program with money he personally earns as a member of the Philippine Air Force and with donations from private sponsors. Pep also spends long hours coaching weightlifting at CrossFit gyms to earn money for his kids.

One of Coach Pep’s lifters lives here.
Another of Coach Pep’s lifters lives here.

Talking to Pep, I could feel the strain it puts on him to feed, clothe, and educate twelve children—the nine children on the team, along with his own three children. Pep was proud that he had kept the program open for three whole years, but I could sense his concern with the long-term success of the program.

“I take on as much extra work as I can find to provide for my lifters,” said Coach Pep.  “I coach weightlifting at CrossFit gyms, at seminars and to an adult class on Saturdays.  Everything I earn goes to supporting my lifters.”

It is a daily struggle for Pep to provide for his lifters. Without outside benefactors, Pep’s program cannot survive.

How Much Does It Cost to Sponsor a Lifter?

It costs Coach Pep about $55 per month to send each lifter to school and feed them.

How Can I Donate to Coach Pep’s Project?

If you—or your weightlifting team—would like to make a donation to Coach Pep’s lifters, click below.

Your donation will change the life of a child. It will offer a child who would otherwise be picking through trash in a dump to have the luxury of going to school and training. Your donation will allow a child who would otherwise have one meal a day to have two meals. And your donation will go directly to Coach Pep and his kids—no collection agencies.

New Predictions for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games

In early October, we made predictions for who would represent the United States at the Youth Olympic Games in Who will Go to the 2018 Youth Olympic Games?

At the time of these predictions, however, only one of the three qualifying events had occurred.  Now, after the second qualifying event–the Pan American Youth Championships in Columbia (October 21-28, 2017)–new athletes are eligible.

There are now 3 female and 4 male athletes who are eligible to represent the United States at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

Who is in the Lead?

Currently, Taylor Babb is the most eligible female, with a 95% of chance of securing a 4th place finish at the Youth Olympic Games.  However, Emma Nye and Athena Schrijver are not far behind, with a 98% and 95% chance respectively of a 6th place finish.

Jerome Smith is the most eligible male athlete, with a 98% chance of placing fourth at the competition.  The other male candidates, however, remain serious contenders.  Stephen Short (98.5% chance of finishing 6th), Antwan Kilbert (97.7% chance of finishing 7th), and Seth Tom (92.8% chance of finishing 10th) will be working hard to go the Games.

It’s Not Over Yet!

The final qualifying event–the 2018 Youth Pan American Championships–will identify a fresh new wave of talent.  Most of the athletes who participated in the first two qualifying events will age out of the Youth Division on December 31, 2017, making room for new talented weightlifters.

There are two qualification events for the 2018 Youth Pan American Championship: the American Open Final (December 2017) and the Junior National Championship (February 2018).

To read more about the selection process for the Youth Olympic Games, read Who will Go to the 2018 Youth Olympic Games?

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For full details on qualification and selection for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, see USA Weightlifting’s Selection Procedures for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

If you can’t find the answer to your question there, contact Phil Andrews at phil.andrews@usaweightlifting.org.

Photos courtesy of Lifting.Life.