As the Olympic gold medalist prepares for what’s next, Hidilyn Diaz makes sure to pay it forward.
Growing up, Hidilyn Diaz took inspiration from Wonder Woman, the Amazonian famed for her super strength and iconic magic lasso. Hidilyn, too, had become the stuff of legends and these days, young girls can look up to her. Lionized as a champ with famed strength and an equally-iconic implement (a barbell), Hidilyn even has her own recognizable pose: lifting a barbell atop her head mid-squat. Should you need a reminder, a quick scroll through social media posts of those who dressed up as the weightlifter last Halloween – local celebrity Anne Curtis Smith’s daughter among them – is a good place to start.
“Now [young girls] have Ate Hidilyn,” the athlete says over Zoom, in the middle of training for her next competition. Almost a year ago, she was in Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic games, making history as the first-ever Filipino to secure a gold medal. She may not be Amazonian like Diana, but she is certainly a gilded Olympian.
Not that Hidilyn ever thought she’d win the Olympics – the word she uses is “impossible.” She didn’t even know about the competition until she ended up in the Beijing leg in 2008. These days, she’s “happy” that Filipino sporting aspirants of any skill level know that competing in and winning the Olympics are within reach. “They’re not wondering if they can win, because they have [a] Filipina who won in the Olympics,” she says. “They can say, ‘Ate Hidi did it,’” she adds, hoping that her breakthrough win is enough to inspire Filipinos to set their goals just as high.
Like other legends forged through fire, she, too, had to overcome challenges on her journey to becoming arguably the greatest Filipino athlete of her generation. Anyone who watched her life story adapted on the drama series Maalaala Mo Kaya would know her struggles started really young. “We are from [a] poor family. I was doing weightlifting to survive.” Hidilyn shares. When she finally showed promise in lifting weights, she remembers thinking, “I’m not doing it because I love it; Because I need to study and [the school] gave me [a] scholarship in Zamboanga.” The allowance from competitions helped her family too, she says, so when she sustained an injury at some point in her career, she felt like she “lost as an athlete.” “I couldn’t walk properly, I [couldn’t] climb,” she recalls. “I felt like I had no direction. Because when you have an injury, you feel like you have to stop and retire.”
But she’s never really been one to quit – not even when she was a kid playing parlor games with her boy cousins. Even if she wasn’t the best at patintero, for example, she’d eventually challenge her opponents to a round of lifting instead, a game she knew she’d win. She even trash talked a lot, she shares, saying, “I didn’t want to lose, I just always wanted to win.”
Not all her peers embraced and accepted her strength. Hidilyn, who describes herself as shy,recounts her younger years of not fitting in anywhere. Plus, the more she lifted, the more she grew insecure and withdrew inward. “When you have insecurities, of course you will get shy and you’ll hide yourself. I hid everything – my muscles,” she reveals, recalling feeling like she wasn’t feminine enough. It didn’t help that back then, according to her, weightlifting was mostly seen as “a man’s sport.”
“For me, femininity [was] more of wearing makeup, wearing nice clothes, heels,” she recalls, adding, “It changed when I [got] old and when I [saw] … Femininity can be anything… successful, be who you are, who you want to be.” She’s since shed her self-doubt. Becoming an endorser for many high profile brands certainly helped. “I’m sexy”, she says, embracing everything about her—from her physique, to her skin, to her hair. For the wonder woman, there is strength in taking care of yourself.
Take her philosophy, for instance, when it comes to caring for her hair. While Hidilyn mostly maintains a clean and functional hairstyle when competing, she’s learned to play up her hair off the weightlifting stage to embrace her womanhood. “Di nawawala ang pagiging babae ko,” the latest Pantene ambassador says, adding, “Inaayos ko pa rin ang hair para well represented ang kababaihan.” Like many women, Hidilyn treats switching up her looks and taking care of her locks as a form of self-care, especially since her hair is subject to different stressors while training. When she feels “stressed,” she recharges by carving out time for a “hair routine with Pantene,” gushing that it makes her feel “more beautiful.”
Strength and femininity – in all its glorious primping and pampering rituals – go hand in hand for the champion and she hopes to help others redefine their notions of femininity too, as well as empower women of all ages, especially young girls. Women have been conditioned to aspire to a certain path: “To be in the house,” she says. “Now they have Ate Hidilyn who they will say femininity is not only for wearing nice clothes, you can be strong also.”
The gospel according to Hidilyn spread like wildfire, of course. Especially with the advent of high intensity workout gyms and a proclivity for trainer-supervised exercises, some Filipino women have already been diversifying their routines to include weight training. Naturally, after Hidilyn’s Olympic triumph, many hailed her as somewhat of a national treasure on social media. Women, in particular, who’ve tried their hand at weightlifting also shared their own workout videos lifting barbells. That elated Hidilyn. “I’m so happy there’s a lot of women doing weightlifting,” she shares of the outpour of support for her and for the sport. “Sports have no gender. There’s no limitation.” She continues, “I really served my purpose for the sport, for women empowerment, for young girls.” Hidilyn also succeeded in one other aspect: modeling an amended definition of strength, one that makes room for women wherever they may lie in the femininity spectrum. Strength, she models, is feminine; Strong is beautiful.
“I’m embracing what’s happening after Tokyo 2020, the opportunity given to me,” she says, adding, “Whatever it is, I enjoy doing it as long as it serves my value as a person and my brand.” These days, she’s training to qualify for the next Olympics, because having won before doesn’t guarantee a spot in the next games. “Not everyone knows it, but qualifying is so hard. Everyone needs to compete for the ranking. We need to earn it,” she reveals.
It’s not all work for her though, something huge is slated for 2022: her wedding. Last year was a big one for Hidilyn as her medal wasn’t the only gold token she received. After her win, her boyfriend and coach Julius Naranjo proposed to her with a customized engagement ring: the diamond was set between what appears to be barbells. Does the ring on her finger remind her of her athletic victory, I posit the question. “It reminds me of the surprise of Julius. It’s his love for me. And he understands what I really love, which is weightlifting. I’m really grateful to God for having him in my life,” she shares, with a giggle.
“I want a simple wedding,” she says of her upcoming nuptials, the date yet to be set. No theme yet either, she just wants guests to witness their “overflowing love.” She does know one thing: “I want to be beautiful, of course!”
When she’s not planning her wedding or training for athletic glory, she spends her time reading inspirational books (The Art of the Good Life by Rolf Dobelli is at the top of her reading list) and studying. Hidilyn Diaz is actually finishing up a Business Management program and is deep in the trenches of her thesis. Of her concentration, she explains, “I’m ok with the numbers.” Plus, should she launch her own business one day, she says she’ll need the technical know-how.
Hidilyn may be at the top of her game at the moment, but she knows she won’t be an athlete forever. Depending on the sport, athletes often have different retirement ages, and though she takes great care of her body, she doesn’t deny that retirement might be around the corner. So she’s making sure she has some solid options in the future, including a potential career in the corporate world. “[This] year I will have my diploma, then after that maybe I will have my master’s,” she shares.
What Hidilyn Diaz does know for sure is that regardless of her retirement age, she wants to pay it forward. During the pandemic lockdowns, she even launched community workshops despite having difficulty accessing gyms herself. The proceeds from her weightlifting classes were even used to help Filipino families in Cavite and Zamboanga buy necessities. Ultimately, she wants more women to take up the lifting mantle. “I know [women] get intimidated by weightlifting because it shows strength, and masculinity but try,” she implores. “You will get challenged, want to break your personal best, and you will learn to love it.” Sharing her dreams for the next Olympics, she says, “I’m hoping that in Paris 2024, it’s not me alone. I hope there’s other athletes that will win in weightlifting, not only me.”
Photography DOOKIE DUCAY
Videography EXCEL PANLAQUE
Creative Direction NICOLE ALMERO
Styling LYN ALMUNO assisted by RAF VILLAS and CLARISSE FURIO
Additional Styling GEE JOCSON assisted by MIKE LESOY, JASON MAGO, and MARK JEFFERSON MOYA
Makeup JUAN SARTE
Hair CELESTE TUVIERA
Shoot coordination KZ FRANCISCO and MJ ALMERO
Shoot on location SHERATON MANILA HOTEL and ROCKEFELLER STUDIOS
Special thanks to BELLE CAHULOGAN of SHERATON MANILA HOTEL
Selected pieces by UNDER ARMOUR