SEA Games: Olympic champ Diaz leads 646-strong contingent in hunt for medals

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Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines in action.
Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines in action. (PHOTO: Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

A YEAR on after winning her country's first-ever Olympic gold medal, weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz returns to the SEA Games competition this month eager to begin on her route to the next Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.

The 31-year-old is the overwhelming favourite to dominate her 55kg weight division and retain the gold medal she won at the 2019 SEA Games, and she told Inquirer Sports in an online press conference that she is also planning to take part in the next Games, which is scheduled to be held in Cambodia in 2023.

"The plan is to keep competing until the Paris Olympics in 2024,” she said. “If there’s also another weightlifting event in Cambodia (in 2023), then I’ll also compete in that SEA Games.”

Diaz - who was named 2021's top athlete by the Philippine Sportswriters Association - will be leading 13 Filipino weightlifters in Hanoi, which include 2020 Asian champion Vanessa Sarno, SEA Games gold medallist Kristel Macrohon, and fellow Tokyo Olympian Elreen Ando.

"I’m actually seeing a lot of Filipino weightlifters who are stronger than me," she said. "There’s a significantly better (medalling) chance for those in the lower weight divisions."

Gunning for top-three placing

Diaz is among 646 Filipino athletes who will be taking part at the Hanoi SEA Games, which will be held from 12 to 23 May.

Philippine team chef de mission Ramon Fernandez told Rappler last month that he is confident in the preparedness of athletes, despite the limitation in training brought by the lockdown due to COVID-19 pandemic.

"There were lockdowns but they were able to train. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they perform on the highest level, it’s not just us who were affected by the pandemic," said the former basketball star.

Fernandez is hoping for a top-three placing in the overall medal table. While the Philippines topped the table with 149 golds, 117 silvers, and 121 bronzes at the last SEA Games, it was held on home soil and many of the country's gold-winning sports disciplines have been axed for this year's edition.

Nonetheless, he is hoping that those who had won gold in the 2019 Games can retain the medal, while the podium finishers can make improvements in their events.

"I’m really relying on the podium finishers. Several, if not all – I hope all of them – can retain their gold," he said.

Kiefer Ravena of the Philippines protects the ball from Singapore players at the 2019 SEA Games He will be back leading the Gila Pilipinas.
Kiefer Ravena of the Philippines protects the ball from Singapore players at the 2019 SEA Games He will be back leading the Gila Pilipinas. (PHOTO: George Calvelo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Gila Pilipinas fancied to continue dominance

One team fancied to retain their gold medal will be the Gilas Pilipinas - the men's basketball team who will be aiming for their 14th straight gold at the SEA Games.

Despite being favourites again, team manager Butch Antonio during last month's Philippine Sportswriters Association online forum that there is still pressure among the squad, due to the enormous expectations.

"It’s like having a big target, front and back,” he said. “The expectation is a gold medal. We can’t afford to lose because there is no other option but to win."

Antonio is thus giving team coach Chot Reyes all the time he needs to name his strongest roster. Barangay Ginebra star Japeth Aguilar, for instance, will be a late decision as the forward has just recovered from a calf injury and is still finding his form.

Meanwhile, Filipino players in the Japan B.League - the Ravena brothers Thirdy and Kiefer, as well as Dwight Ramos - were released from their clubs only last week, which was why Reyes has asked the Philippine Olympic Committee to extend the deadline in sending in their roster before they depart for Hanoi on 14 May.

The basketball competition in the Hanoi SEA Games is scheduled from 16 to 22 May. The Philippines are defending champions in all four events - the men's and women's 5x5 and 3x3 competitions.

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