Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Interview with Philippines Weightlifting Olympian Hidilyn Diaz


Welcome to the New Year. 2016 isn't just any year, it's an Olympic year. The 31st Summer Olympic will take place this August in Rio de Janeiro of Brazil. Weightlifting will be one of the many returning sports. For weightlifters, this is their most important competition. Winning an Olympic medal is unlike a medal from any other competition.

Most fans of the sport admire China, Russia, and countries that produce multiple top competitors. As a result, weightlifters from smaller countries may not receive as much attention. But not this time as I had the pleasure of interviewing Philippines weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz: the native of Zamboanga City is a two time, soon to be third, Olympian, and medalist at multiple international competitions. However before I get ahead of myself, let me provide a bit of background to how this came to be.

Before I arrived in Houston for the 2015 IWF Championships, I noticed Papa Yats would be in attendance as well. For those unfamiliar with Papa Yats (or Yatsek), he is a mentor of Hidilyn as well as a coach who provides alternative information about foreign weightlifting training methods and programming on his non-commercial Instagram account. Not only that, he's also involved in fundraising for Filipino weightlifting clubs. He is originally from Poland, has traveled extensively throughout Asia, and now lives in California. His weightlifting philosophy is rooted in Asian and Eastern European methods as he finds them most effective; he is not a believer of American methods.

I contacted Papa Yats to see if I could interview him when I arrived in Houston. He thought it would be more interesting if I interviewed Hidilyn instead. This didn't even occur to me because I assumed athletes would be tired from competition and would want to relax rather than sit down for an interview.

And so on my first night Papa Yats said I could come visit them at Hidilyn's hotel room. As I entered the room, I was greeted by Papa Yats, who introduced me to Hidilyn and members of the Philippines Weightlifting Association - President Roger Dullano and head coach Alfonsito Aldanete. It's at this point I realized I really am an amateur and very new to this sport.

Roger and Alfonsito left the room, leaving Papa Yats, Hidilyn, and myself to sit down and talk. I should mention at this point it was already around 10 o'clock at night and Hidilyn was tired. Also for both of them, English is their second language. Thankfully, Papa Yats knew answers to some of the questions I asked and was able to help Hidilyn if she might have needed clarification.

Overall I believe it was a great conversation. Enjoy.

Recent & Upcoming Competitions

Niel: Welcome to the United States. Congratulations on your performance Hidilyn. How do you feel training reflected in this competition?
Hidilyn: It’s really hard, you have to adjust in weather and jet lag. I could not sweat to drop weight so I cut my hair. We arrived on November 15th and started training on the 16th. I didn’t sweat because it’s so cold here. In the Philippines, I start to sweat even when I would stretch.
Papa Yats: Their gym in the Philippines has open windows where there’s no glass and it’s exposed to the open air where in Manila it’s super hot. There’s no air conditioning or good ventilation. It’s tropical weather over there.
Niel: And the training hall here is kept air conditioned.
Papa Yats: Yeah and it’s kept cold. Today was a little better.
Hidilyn: Then the jet lag – I haven’t slept for days. Yeah for 3 or 4 days then training started. Pangit (Tagalog word): You know pangit? It’s “ugly,” I couldn’t train properly.

Niel: You still did well.
Hidilyn: Yeah, but my goal is 103kg snatch and 123kg clean & jerk. Three weeks before I did a 93kg snatch and a 118kg clean & jerk in training.
Papa Yats: She typically lifts much more in competition than in training. I’m talking about snatching seven plus kilos more in competition than in training. Since she snatched 93kg, that was an indicator she could hit 100-101kg in competition.
Hidilyn: But I also got sick. That’s why my performance dropped for one week. Maybe because I couldn’t sleep I got sick.
Papa Yats: She only did an 85kg snatch the first day she came here (to Houston).

Niel: Hidilyn, how’s your schedule been? You competed at the Southeast Asian Weightlifting Championships in late June, Asians in September, Houston now, and have Rio coming up in 2016.
Papa Yats: Hadie (pet name for Hidilyn) has a competition on December 7th in Qatar which is about two weeks from now. She already started lifting today (Tuesday) in the training hall for the first time after Sunday’s competition. She took Monday off and today she did very light training. Snatches up to 55kg which is very light. Some good mornings, little military press, side bends for the abdominal muscles, and that’s it. The Qatar Federation is paying for the whole trip and there’s a cash prize which is nice. That’s the goal.

A video posted by Papa Yats (@papayats) on

Pull with rebend/Panda pull/Chinese Pull

So schedule has been tight. Southeast Asian Games was the original plan and they, Hidilyn and Nestor, weren’t supposed to compete in Asian Championships, but the IWF asked them to compete if they wanted to win individual qualifications for the Olympics. (The Philippines is not going for team qualifications. There is no budget to send that many lifters to international competitions.)

You know the situation. They switched the Asian Championships from June because there was an earthquake in Nepal and it was changed from Nepal to Thailand in September. There was a little bit of change there and the schedule wasn’t exactly set. Her results were practically the same for all three competitions: 213kg for Southeast Asian Championship, 214kg for Asian Championships, and 213kg for World Championships. Basically, she remained in competition cycle from April to November, never had time to go back to basic preparatory cycle. She was unable to increase results.
Hidilyn: It made it hard to recover and control my weight.

2015 Asian Championships
Credit Sportivny Press

Niel: How do you like competing as a 53kg versus a 58kg? Is eating less more comfortable for you?
Hidilyn: I don’t like it.
Papa Yats: She means she doesn't like watching her diet.
Niel: You had to eat a lot to maintain and keep your weight as a 58kg, right? Now you have to watch your weight.
Papa Yats: When I saw the 58kg girls, they’re big now – so masculine!
Hidilyn: They’re so big and strong. Yes, I have to watch my weight, but it’s okay. The best strategy is to lower my weight to compete in a different class. Although I have to eat healthy.
Papa Yats: And the strategy worked.
Niel: Do you eat a lot of Filipino food?
Hidilyn: Yes, everything. I love Korean food, Japanese food, Mexican food, everything. And I love nachos. That’s why it’s hard for me to keep my weight, but I have a nutritionist now who plans my meals. I use to eat healthy food so I’m okay with 53kg now – until Rio.
Papa Yats: Then retirement from lifting.
Hidilyn: I don’t know. It’s really hard. You want to eat with your friends, but then your friends want to eat cakes, milk tea, pizza, and all those kinds of foods. I can’t eat sugar and sweets. Yes it’s hard, but it’s okay. You see I placed in the 53kg.
Papa Yats: Or maybe they’re going to a party or something like a birthday. For instance, she gave me her cheesecake because she couldn’t eat it. She actually brought it to me, because she couldn't decline it from her friends. She actually has chocolate all over the place here (her hotel room). Now it’s different, today is different. Although the Qatar competition is in two week, but maybe you can’t go that bad. (Note from Papa Yats: She went overweight there, and had to lift in 63kg class, because they didn't have a 58kg class. She still won.)
Hidilyn: It’s okay. I already ate chocolate last night so I’m good with that. You want some chocolate?

Papa Yats: Soon she’s going to have to watch her bodyweight again for the Qatar competition. We went for a nice steak dinner today with my friend Jonas (Dr. Westbrook from Two Doctors), but that’s about it. The athlete’s buffet is pretty good downstairs in the dining room.
Hidilyn: The food is good, but it’s the same every day.
Papa Yats: I just want to say in the Philippines, she doesn’t get any extra bonus for winning this. No money involved. She buys her own food. There’s no food fairy that provides food for the high level athlete. She gets some stipend in general from the Filipino Olympic Committee, but it’s not nice like in the United States Olympic Training Center. There are no dining facilities or even a kitchen for the lifters in the Philippines. You have to buy food outside.

In the US, the weightlifters have everything they need to train. At least that's what coach Zygmunt said when he was inviting her over to train in Colorado. Over there they don’t even have air conditioning. They don’t have proper equipment. The gym is falling apart. Niel, you saw the picture of the gym. I mean does it look good?
Hidilyn: You saw how old the plates are?
Papa Yats: Ten years old or more.


Niel: I understand you had some issues with your leg. Has that been getting better and did it affect your performance?
Hidilyn: I don’t like to back squat, but I have special training for the squat. I bounce out of the bottom. I use it so my clean will bounce up when I receive the bar. I squatted heavy weights, but there’s a big bounce at the bottom. It helps a lot for my reaction in the clean, but my squat is still not too good. I don’t know why. The issue isn’t pain, I just don’t have strength for the back squat.
Papa Yats: She doesn’t like the squat exercise so she tries to avoid it.

Arrived in the morning and already in training with @haidie20  I do believe that with a little luck we can squeeze a tiny bronze medal at World Championship in Houston 2015. I say "we" however in all honesty I'm just adding my little brick to the wall... All other lifters left the gym and there's only her and I. Extra work needs to be done. Her biggest weakness is getting up after a heavy clean.  Her leg is injured, and she is doing only minimum of full back squats. We are forced to do different #squat exercises to maintain or even increase strength of her legs (6 weeks only to Asian Championship). Half squat is nothing new, but these here are done with slow tempo and full control, lighter weights, working on feeling deep muscles, glutes, and abdominals. We finished with some electromuscle stimulation for quads (I'm using Compex, but Globus is a good one, too). For the record, I'm not really her #coach, just sort of friend, motivator, and impresario. Beyond certain level, disciplined lifters can really coach themselves, but of course they need that someone to be there with them. Don't be afraid of half squats, but do them for slow muscle building, not for #powerlifting records. When I program, I'm really big on different squat variations, and the results have been convincing to say the least.  #olympicweightlifting #oly #weightlifting #crossfit #usaw #coaching #filipinostrong
A video posted by Papa Yats (@papayats) on

Niel: You competed in the 2008 Olympics when you were 17. You have more experience now. How does your experience now compare to back then?
Hidilyn: At that time when I was 17, there was no pressure. I didn’t know what the Olympic was or anything. I just went there and was amazed thinking, “Oh, this is the Olympics.” I was able to go because I got a wild card. The Philippines Weightlifting Association didn’t expect anything from me, but sent me for exposure.
Papa Yats: She was happy to be there, but she also had kind of good results too. They don’t give wild cards for nothing.
Hidilyn: Yes. In 2007, they saw that I have potential because I got bronze at the Southeast Asian Games and I was only 16.


Left to right: Hidilyn at Beijing in 2008, London in 2012, and 2015 now

Niel: Training can be very hard mentally. What helps you through hard days?
Hidilyn: I set my mind to compete in Rio. I tell myself this is my third time, it’s my third Olympic Games. I want to win, so if I give up then how will I be able to go there? How can I reach my goal? When I train, I always think “Rio, Rio, Rio” in my mind. I promised myself when I qualify that I have to win any medal. I have to win because it’s my third Olympics.

Weightlifting in the Philippines

Niel: Is weightlifting popular in the Philippines?
Hidilyn: No.
Papa Yats: Filipino weightlifting is more popular here in the US than in the Philippines. I’m sorry to say that she has more fans in America than in the Philippines.
Niel: That seems similar to many countries – there’s no recreational weightlifting. There’s only weightlifting to compete at a high level.
Papa Yats: Yes, there’s no recreational weightlifting.

Niel: Is there a Filipino weightlifting system?
Hidilyn: No.
Papa Yats: It’s everybody for themselves. Of course, their group of Nestor, Hidilyn, Jeffrey, Richard, and Chris train together some times. They’re going to have the same kind of training ideas because they have been training together.
Hidilyn: I’ve trained in China in 2007, 2008, and 2013. In 2007, I trained in Guangzhou for two months and in 2008 and 2013, I trained in Guangxi for three months each.
Papa Yats: Which one did you like better, Guangxi?
Hidilyn: Yes, Guangxi. There was Deng Mengrong, Lu Yong, and a 48kg girl. The place is good. China’s training is good.

A video posted by Papa Yats (@papayats) on

Deng Mengrong

Niel: They have a system and schools.
Hidilyn: Yes.
Niel: It’s not like America.
Papa Yats: She’s not familiar with training in America. She sees the videos on the internet, but she doesn’t understand why people would use or teach bad technique. She doesn't understand that you can become a weightlifting coach in one weekend. Obviously I’m not saying it’s everywhere. There are good coaches and systems here, like Coach Zygmunt Smalcerz. He’s doing good things.

Niel: Aside from more medals, what would the Philippines Weightlifting Association like to see happen in the country?
Papa Yats: Right now any kind of bump in popularity and introducing more kids to the sport, but for that you need money for equipment and facilities. It’s not easy, but hopefully with her and Nestor there can be some progress. This is the first time in a long time that the country had any kind of success in weightlifting.
Niel: Speaking of more money, the fundraiser you began passed its goal.
Papa Yats: It’s still not enough, but at least it helps one club. I’m going to set up the next one and I’m going to help Hidilyn's club in her hometown, Zamboanga City. There are many people that want to help, but they don’t know how to help.
Niel: Do you have more ideas in mind?
Papa Yats: Yes, I think everyone who donates will get a copy of Hidilyn's weightlifting program. You can either donate money to my crowdfunding, or donate equipment (shoes, plates, barbells). If you decide to donate equipment, I'll provide you with address of the club in the Philippines to ship it to. That way you can do it your way, and there is no middle man involved.

Short Questions

Niel: What do you like more, the snatch or clean & jerk?
Hidilyn: I love the jerk. But my clean is no good.
Papa Yats: In my opinion, her best lift technically is the jerk. Just the jerk. From the rack I think I saw her a few times do 125kg with good technique. Anything she can clean she can jerk. In the opinion of several foreign coaches, she actually has a better technical jerk than other competitors in her weight class. Actually, the same goes for Nestor.

A successful 117kg jerk by Hidilyn in Houston
Credit International Weightlifting Federation

Niel: If you weren’t in weightlifting, what do you think you would be doing right now?
Hidilyn: I’d have six kids, ha. No, seriously. Six kids – Do, Re, Mi, Pa, So....
Papa Yats: Yeah, a bum no good husband and several kids. Weightlifting helps people grow over there in the Philippines. In many poorer countries, through sport you can finish school. If you look at kids from her neighborhood, who didn’t do any sports, that’s their future: Girls her age with several kids.

Niel: What’s your favorite thing about weightlifting?
Hidilyn: The process and when I struggle in training. When you’re an athlete, you don’t want things to happen so easy. I want to achieve that goal.
Papa Yats: It’s all about the journey, not going to the top.
Hidilyn: Yes, I want it that way.

Niel: What’s your least favorite thing about weightlifting?
Papa Yats: Injury? I don’t know.
Hidilyn: Yes…..and the stretching after training.
*group laughter*
Papa Yats: I think she’s talking about the mandatory partner stretching when you push a little over the limit.

Partner assisted stretching

Hidilyn: After training, I have to stay in the gym to do stretching to prevent injuries, but I don’t like stretching.
Papa Yats: Who likes stretching? No one. I hate stretching, mobility, but of course even I do it almost every day or I try to.
Hidilyn: I had injury before, last year that’s why. Lesson learned. After training I have to stretch and I have to do general preparation exercises


Niel: So to wrap it up, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Hidilyn: Dream big. Do it. Believe in yourself. The thing is, if you dream big, everything is possible. If you want it, you can get it.

Niel: That’s very encouraging. Do you plan on visiting the US again?
Hidilyn: Maybe yes.
Papa Yats: And you need to spend some time with my kids then. You’re going to miss my kids!
Hidilyn: Yes, of course.

Niel: Are there any specific plans for the future we can expect from you? Besides Rio.
Hidilyn: I don’t know yet. Maybe after Rio I’m planning to rest for a while. I want to be some place and I want to explore. I want to relax my mind because for how many years? For 13 years in weightlifting, I don’t even get five days of rest. Only during the holy week, I have only two days rest so I have to enjoy life. I want to see the world and how beautiful it is. Yes, then maybe do some charity work, teach weightlifting to kids.

Niel: Is there anything you would like to say to all your fans out there?
Papa Yats: She doesn’t even know she has fans, but I keep telling her she does.
Hidilyn: Thank you for the prayers, for the support, and for believing in me. Because of them I have the courage to train because sometimes they message me words of support like “You can do it.” I get encouraged by them. Thank you for that.

Post Interview

At this time, Papa Yats and I left to walk around the convention center as well as check out the late night sessions. On our way to the competition hall, we ran into IWF member Aveenash Pandoo (see the previous post), as well as other weightlifters who came to watch the championships, which provided us with additional opportunities to talk more about the sport. For me, this was great. I quickly learned to walk around as much as possible during the rest of my stay and interact with as many people as I could.

Thank you to Hidilyn and Papa Yats for taking the time to sit down with me for this interview. Hidilyn, I wish you much success in 2016 and Rio!

UPDATE: She placed 2nd and won the silver medal! Be sure to send her congratulations on an excellent performance! Her social media sites are linked down below.


If you enjoyed reading this interview and want to stay updated on Hidilyn's journey, you can follow her and Papa Yats on the following social media sites below.

Hidilyn Diaz
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