by Rey Bancod
On Sunday, Diaz captured the silver medal in the women’s 53-kilogram division, an unexpected turn of event that gave a nation of 102 million something to cheer about.
Born from a poor family, Diaz was discovered when she was nine years old by Elbert Atilano, a former weightlifter himself who served as her first coach.
Atilano said she saw something special in Diaz when she took part in the Learn to Play program organized by the local government in Zamboanga City.
“Mahiyain, pero may tindig at may galaw,” said Atilano, recalling his first meeting with Diaz.
To keep Diaz interested, Atilano said he invited other children to train with her.
Eventually, Atilano said he had to bring a set of barbells and dumb bells to Diaz’s home in Barangay Mampang.
“Malayo kasi ang training center. Mga 10 kilometers. Isa pa, madalas wala rin kasi siyang pamasahe,” said Atilano.
Diaz entered the Universidad de Zamboanga on a sports scholarship that allowed her to compete in national and international events.
She went on to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics at the age of 15 and returned for another shot in the 2012 London Olympics. In both instances, she competed in the 56-kilogram division.
Each time, Diaz went home disappointed, unable to fulfill the promise she showed at an early age.
Atilano, a city councilor, said he had to let other coaches handle Diaz because of his work.
“Nagtampo nga ako kasi parang hindi na niya ako pinapansin,” Atilano admitted.
Two years ago, Atilano said he was invited to handle the national pool as vice-president of the Philippine Weightlifting Association (PWA).
He was reunited with Diaz whose career was not getting anywhere.
“May mga plano siya na pumunta sa America. May mga nag-imbita sa kanya na mga clubs doon,” Atilano said.
While forming the national pool, Atilano said he talked to Diaz and convinced her to compete in the lighter 53-kilogram division.
“Sinabi ko sa kanya na hindi niya kaya sa 58-kilogram. Hindi siya magka-qualify sa Olympics. Mabuti at nakinig,” he recalled.
With the help of a nutritionist, Diaz changed her eating habits and the result was dramatic.
Last year, Diaz won the gold in the Southeast Asian championships in Bangkok and bagged three bronzes in the world meet in Houston, Texas.
Atilano said he was not surprised that Diaz made the podium.
“I was in fact expecting a medal,” he said. “She was doing 216 kgs. in practice before she left for China two months ago.”
He said he opposed Diaz’s trip to China, believing that it would only disrupt her preparations.
“Imbes na isang adjustment lang pagdating sa Rio de Janeiro, kailangan pa nyang mag-adjust sa China at sa pagbalik niya sa Pilipinas,” he said.
Atilano believes that Diaz would have done better than the 200 kilograms she lifted for the silver.
“Ang target namin was 230 kilograms,” he said.
Atilano said with Diaz’s success, he hopes that weightlifting will finally get the attention that it deserves.
“Matagal na ‘yung request namin for new equipment. ‘Yung mga ginagamit namin sa training, noong 2005 pa nabili,” he said.
He also hopes that more and more Filipinos will be drawn into the sport.
“Sa ngayon, mga 300 lang ang aktibo sa weightlifting, karamihan pa sa Zamboanga City lang,” Atilano said.
Atilano said he manages a pool of 25 national athletes who will follow Diaz’s footstep including 13-year-old Rosegie Ramos who incidentally is Hidilyn’s relative.