History Made: The Philippines finally got its first gold medal after nearly a century of competing

Hidilyn Diaz holding a sign posing for the camera: Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines reacts after placing first in the women's 55 kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo Olympic Games. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP via Getty Images)Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines reacts after placing first in the women’s 55 kg weightlifting competition during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

The 30-year-old weightlifter is the first athlete from the Philippines to win an Olympic gold medal. With her final lift Monday at Tokyo International Forum, she set two Olympic records en route to a triumph in the 55 kg division.

“It’s a dream come true,” Diaz said afterward. “I just want to say that we Filipinos are strong. We Filipinos can compete here at the Olympics. We can do it.”

The Philippines first sent athletes to the Olympics in 1924 and it has competed in every Summer Games since then, apart from 1980, when it joined the United States-led boycott of Moscow as the host site. Before Monday, the country had won 10 medals, seven bronze and three silver.

Diaz accounted for one of the silvers with a strong showing at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro that made her the first Filipina medalist. She joins swimmer Teofilo Yldefonso, who earned bronze in the men’s 200-meter breaststroke in 1928 and 1932, as her country’s only winners of multiple medals.

“To all the young generation in the Philippines, please dream high,” Diaz, who grew up in impoverished conditions, said Monday. “That’s how I started. I dreamed high and finally I was able to do it.”

After the snatch, the first leg of two legs in Monday’s competition, Diaz was in second with a lift of 97 kg, just behind Uzbekistan’s Muattar Nabieva (98 kg) and tied with Liao Qiuyun of China. The 2019 world champion, Liao set a world record then with a total of 227 kg, and after hoisting 126 kg with her third and last try Monday in the clean and jerk, she led the competition with a total of 223.

To beat Liao, Diaz needed to set an Olympic record with a clean and jerk of 127 kg, and she did just that, with her total of 224 also establishing a new mark at the Games. Diaz then burst into tears.

The native of Zamboanga, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, continued to cry as she saluted her flag while standing atop the Olympic podium.

In addition to her unprecedented hardware and acclaim from Filipino politicians, Diaz’s reward includes praise from the country’s foremost sports superstar, boxer Manny Pacquiao.

“Thank you for your hard work and perseverance,” Pacquiao tweeted while sharing images of Diaz’s seminal moment in Tokyo. “We celebrate you and your success. We are proud of you!”

In Filipino culture, few celebrations are complete without generous servings of food, something the 5-foot-1 weightlifter has been largely forgoing in preparation for her big moment on the world stage.

“Yes, I will eat a lot tonight,” Diaz told Agence France-Presse with a smile, noting she was looking forward to indulging in two of her favorite desserts, cheesecake and bubble tea.

Perhaps the sweetest outcome of completing her Olympic dream, though, will be seeing her family again. Diaz began training in Malaysia in early 2020 and has been unable to go home because of pandemic-related restrictions as well as the need to train intensely over the past few months.

“I’m looking forward to enjoy life, because I have been in Malaysia for, I don’t know, almost two years so I’m really thankful I can go home now and celebrate with my family and the people who support me,” she said.

In her fourth Olympic appearance, after competing at 58 kg in 2008 and 2012 and then at 53 kg in 2016, Diaz also became the first competitor in Tokyo to prevent a Chinese weightlifter from winning a gold medal. Athletes from that country had topped the field in the first three events staged in that sport, and China was hoping to sweep the eight weightlifting events in which it has participants.

“I really enjoyed the Olympic Games and I did the best I can, in fact better than I imagined,” said Liao. “I really respect my opponent because she did a better job. I’m thankful for all the people who supported me. I have no regrets, I got the silver medal.”

Getting the bronze in the women’s 55 kg event was Zulfiya Chinshanlo of Kazakhstan.

Diaz is already bracing for how a gold will change her life. “I won [silver] already in Rio, so I know how it feels to be a public figure, but I don’t know if I’m a national hero,” she said. “I am thankful that God is using me to inspire all the young generation and all the Filipino people to keep fighting during this pandemic.”

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