TOKYO—A diminutive but muscular figure sits alone for breakfast at the Cerise casual dining restaurant of Conrad’s Tokyo the morning after the entire Philippine nation celebrated Hidilyn Diaz’s gold medal in women’s weightlifting at the Tokyo Olympics.
That man, about 5 feet but with a frame that no doubt grizzled by the demands of weightlifting, was Antonio “Tony” Agustin.
Agustin owns the distinction as one of Diaz’s coaches very early in her career. Her first coach was a cousin, Catalino Diaz, who started honing the eventual Olympic gold medalist in a backyard gym in Zamboanga City.
“Hidilyn started weightlifting when she was 10 years old in a backyard gym set up by her cousin Cat [Catalino],” said Agustin, a Southeast Asian Games campaigner in his prime, having competed in the biennial games from 1991 to 1997.
“Hidilyn and her cousins were Cat’s wards, and she was the only girl in the group,” said Agustin, adding Diaz and co. were made to practice lifting technics first with sticks before levelling up with weights.
That was in 2001 when Diaz showed dedication to the sport that complemented her physique and skills to go into serious weightlifting.
“The next stop was to bring Hidilyn to the Batang Pinoy in Puerto Princesa in 2002 where she dominated with gold medals,” said Agustin, also a Zamboangeno like Diaz. “I was already a member of the national coaching staff then and I immediately took her in.”
Diaz’s progress went quick like weightlifting’s snatch category.
“Despite her age, we entered her in seniors’ competitions—in the SEA Games and even the Asian Games,” he said. “That way, she became stronger and comprehended the sport even more at an early age.”
Like many members of the national team, Diaz stayed at the Athletes’ Quarters at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila. And it was during one of those motorcycle trips from Rizal Memorial to the PhilSports (formerly Ultra) Complex that Antonio vividly recalls telling Diaz his fervent dream—to see her competing on the Olympic stage.
“While we were on Edsa, I told Hidilyn ‘I dream of seeing you some day on one of those giant billboards as an Olympic champion,” he told Diaz. “I’m a frustrated Olympian, but I will fulfill my dream if you go to the Olympics and win the gold medal.”
Diaz’s reply: “Coach, you’re so ambitious. That’s too much of an ambition.”
Diaz had her Olympic debut as a wildcard at Beijing 2008. So young and so inexperienced on the biggest stage of them all, she was a mere participant. Come 2012 in London and Diaz couldn’t complete her lifts and went home with her heart bleeding.
Then came Rio de Janeiro and medals were ripe for the picking for a Diaz whose body, spirit and experience were tuned in to one goal—win a medal.
She did, clinching a silver that ended a medal spell since Mansueto “Onyok” Velasco bagged a boxing silver in the 1996 Atlanta edition.
“That was the fruit of her hard work, sacrifices and labor in the gym,” Antonio said. “I was very happy for her then, but now, I am even much happier for her.”
Agustin said he felt the gold was there for the picking for Diaz on Monday night.
“She was relaxed, and she didn’t even need to shout off her fear,” said Agustin, explaining that weightlifters who keep shouting on the ramp are those who aren’t confident at all in making good lifts.
“I saw it in her eyes, and her body spoke of her determination to win the gold,” he said.