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Reporting from Tokyo
TOKYO — One lift, one 127kg clean-and-jerk lift, was all that separated weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz from being forever written into the Philippines' sporting history.
She heaved the weights onto her shoulders, and staggered. Then she steadied herself - and thrusted the weights up into the skies.
And with that, Diaz ended the Philippines' 97-year wait for an Olympic gold medal on Monday (26 July), when she emerged triumphant in the women's 55kg division at the Tokyo International Forum.
The 30-year-old lifted 97kg in the snatch and 127kg in the clean and jerk, with her combined total of 224kg putting her above silver medallist Liao Qiuyun of China (221kg) and bronze medallist Zulfiya Chinshanlo of Kazakhstan (213kg).
Upon making the winning lift, Diaz dissolved into a flood of tears with her coaches. Years of sacrifices - of being stuck in Malaysia due to COVID-19, of training in makeshift gyms - have finally caught up with the diminutive but intense athlete.
"I’ve never lifted 127kg before, ever. But somehow I did it tonight. God must be guiding me," she told Yahoo News Singapore later.
Second athlete to win multiple Olympic medals
Diaz, who is competing in her fourth Olympics, becomes the first Filipino athlete to clinch the gold at the Summer Olympics since the country first sent athletes to the Games in 1924.
The Zamboanga native, who had won a silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, also becomes only the second Filipino athlete to win multiple Games medals since Teofilo Yldefonso won two swimming bronzes in 1928 and 1932.
“I knew I could win, but I have never felt as emotional as this. Holding this gold medal here, it’s like, ‘wow this is unbelievable,’ " Diaz said.
"I want to thank God for guiding me and my team. I’m very thankful that I was able to bring home the gold for the Philippines.”
Since winning the silver medal in Rio, the Philippine Air Force sergeant has had to deal with skyrocketing expectations in her country, especially after she followed up her feat with gold-medal wins at the 2018 Asian Games and 2019 SEA Games.
On Monday, however, she displayed immense calm during the tense final, where she was neck-and-neck with Liao - the world record holder for the weight division - for much of the competition. A failed 99kg third attempt in the snatch did not faze her, nor did a bleeding cut on her finger caused by the botched lift.
Through some tactical manoeuvring, Diaz forced Liao to go first for her final clean-and-jerk lift. While the Chinese lifter managed a creditable 126kg lift, it left Diaz knowing how much she needed to clinch the gold.
And clinch gold she did, setting Olympic records for both the 127kg lift and the total, and leaving Liao distraught, saying that she did not expect her rival to be so good.
COVID-19 disruptions did not deter Diaz
Diaz's monumental win was all the more astonishing given that she was heavily disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
She had been stuck in Malaysia since February 2020, training in a makeshift gym at a weightlifting official's hot and humid garage, and has not seen her family in Zamboanga since December 2019.
It was hardly the most ideal lead-up to her gold-medal bid, yet she refused to bow down to the massive inconvenience brought about by the coronavirus.
"All the tough conditions to train in Malaysia has been worth it," she gushed. "I had my doubts whether I had prepared enough, but I've always believed in my team.
"I hope that my gold medal can inspire more youngsters in my country to chase their dreams. If they chase hard enough, if they are determined enough, then they can achieve as much as me."
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