Cover Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

In a historic win at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Hidilyn Diaz brought the Philippines its first-ever Olympic gold medal, set a new Olympic record, and tied current the world weightlifting record.

After nearly one hundred years, the Philippines has finally brought home its first-ever Olympic gold medal–all thanks to Filipina weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz. The 30-year-old Zamboanga-born athlete triumphed against world champion Liao Qiuyun, lifting a combined weight of 224kg (with 97kg in the snatch and 127kg in the clean and jerk) and placing first in the women’s 55kg weightlifting competition. In the process, Diaz also set the new Olympic record and tied the current world record.

The moment she claimed this historic victory, Diaz immediately burst into tears of disbelief and gratitude, overwhelmed with emotion alongside the many Filipinos who rooted for her from home. “It’s unbelievable, it’s a dream come true”, she shared in a post-match interview. Diaz continues, saying “I want to say to the young generation in the Philippines, ‘You can have this dream of gold too’”.

See also: "My Victory is Everyone's Victory", Hidilyn Diaz on Her Tough Road to Claim the Philippines' First Olympic Gold

Unsurprisingly, Diaz has roused awe and pride throughout the nation, with fellow Filipinos taking to social media to celebrate the gold medallist. From her most notable wins to some of the greatest challenges she’s overcome, here are five things you should know about our beloved champion and 2017 Gen T honouree Hidilyn Diaz.

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Career of Firsts

Diaz’ weightlifting career is defined by countless exceptional “firsts”.

At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she became the first female weightlifter to represent the country—and at just 17 years old, she was also the youngest contender in the competition. Eight years later at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she nabbed the Philippines’ first Olympic medal in 20 years and became the first-ever Filipina to win an Olympic medal. 

She then continued to take home her first gold medal at the 2018 Asian Games held in Indonesia, and of course, brought the nation its first Olympic gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. To make this even more impressive, the record-breaking 127kg lift in the clean and jerk was also a first for Diaz. Throughout her tireless training, she had only maxed out at 125 kilograms.

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Decorated Athlete

Apart from these notable “firsts”, Diaz is decorated with numerous other awards, proving her victories are no stroke of luck. In addition to placing second at the 2016 Rio Olympics, first at the 2018 Asian Games, and first at this year’s Tokyo Olympics, she was also recognised with a bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships and gold at the SEA Games in the same year.

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Mental and Emotional Strength

Evidently, Hidilyn Diaz’ physical strength is unquestionable - but throughout her journey, the weightlifter has also proven mental and emotional toughness, overcoming numerous obstacles that nearly broke her spirit.

Diaz faced a devastating loss at the 2012 London Olympics, where her efforts resulted in a shattering “Did Not Finish” after three failed clean and jerk attempts. Recounting this experience with Tatler, she intimated “My failure was so public. I was trolled online and bashed in the media, and although it was hard for me, it was more for my family.” Diaz continued, saying “I didn’t feel shame; I was just hurt because I love my country and would do everything for it. I did question if I deserved that kind of treatment but I continued to love and serve the Philippines.”

As the athlete prepared for her momentous return at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Diaz suffered a major injury. “At that point, I thought that there was no way I could win in the Olympics or even go back to weightlifting. I felt like I was a loser, a failure, that I was empty and with no purpose or direction in my life”, she told Tatler.

Most recently, Diaz confronted financial challenges that threatened her gold medal dream. Disclosing these difficulties with Tatler, she says “Training for the Olympics is gruelling and needs funding. We need to find the money to train and compete abroad, for accommodations, airfare, food and everything else”. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic stranded the weightlifter in Malaysia, forcing her to train for the games away from her family.

Despite these mental and emotional strains, Diaz continued to overcome these challenges and come out on top - “Weightlifting makes me strong physically, but also mentally and emotionally, and allows me to face these challenges head-on”, she beams proudly. Fresh off her latest victory, she told AFP “I’m looking forward to going back home to the Philippines to be with my family because I really miss them [...] I’m looking forward now to enjoy my life after so many sacrifices.”

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Relentless Commitment to Training

Inspired by the exercise regimens of her male cousins, Diaz took up the habit herself and started her weightlifting journey at just eleven years old. During these early years, her lifting equipment did not consist of the typical barbells and plates - rather, she fashioned her own versions using ipil-ipil (Leucaena leucocephala) sticks, cement weights, and jeepney mag wheels. Over lockdown in Malaysia, Diaz continued her creative streak, training with broomsticks, bags stuffed with water-filled bottles, and resistance bands to train for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, demonstrating an unwavering commitment to her training that proved invaluable.

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Heart of Gold

In 2017, the athlete opened the doors to the Hidilyn Diaz Weightlifting Gym in her hometown of Zamboanga City attracting aspiring athletes to the fully-furnished gym free of charge. The meaningful gesture has since proven impactful, inspiring children as young as six years old to make use of the facilities and follow in Diaz’ footsteps. Beyond using her platform to share her infectious positivity and motivation, Diaz has also participated in a number of social campaigns, speaking at the 2017 BDJ Women’s Summit themed Women Can. Women Will; the 8th PANAF Youth Congress later that year; and organising COVID-19 relief food drives for Zamboanga, Cavite, Bulacan, and Metro Manila.

See also: Olympian Hidilyn Diaz Talks About Rock Bottom And Her Battle To Win The Gold