The room was quiet as she approached the weightlifting platform for her final lift in the women’s 55kg category. China’s Liao Qiuyun was in the lead after successfully raising 126kg.
Diaz looked confident. Focused. She spoke the personal mantra that had carried her through the competition so far: “Chest out. Deadlift. One motion.” She had one final shot at making history for her country with the Philippines’ first Olympic gold.
Seconds later, with 127kg of metal raised perilously above her head, emotion rushed across her face as the buzzer sounded to confirm a clean lift. Aged 30, she had achieved the victory she had dreamed of for so long.
It had been a difficult journey for Diaz, for many reasons. Because of the attitudes she encountered growing up. Because she had found herself locked down in a foreign country for a year over Covid. And because in 2019 she was named an “enemy of the state”.
The Philippines first took part in the Olympics in 1924, sending just one athlete to Paris – David Nepomuceno, a sprinter.
The woman who won the Philippines’ first Olympic gold, ending a 97-year dry spell, was born in 1991 in Zamboanga City, a city of almost one million people in the country’s south. One of six siblings, Diaz’s father earned a living providing short-haul transport on a tricycle, while her mother was a full-time housewife.
She was 11 when a cousin introduced her to weightlifting, much to her mother’s dismay.
“My mum told me, ‘No one will like you when you’re older. That sport is for men. You’ll get big muscles and you won’t get pregnant,'” Diaz says.
“I still did it because I enjoyed it. But later she started supporting me, when she saw how much I enjoyed it and the benefits it had, like my high-school scholarship.”
Diaz was gifted. Within six years she was competing on the biggest stage of all. Aged just 17, she went to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, where she finished second-last in a field of 12.
At London 2012 she was her country’s flagbearer, but the Games ended in disappointment as she failed with three attempts to lift her opening weight. Still, everybody had high hopes for the future.
Now combining an athletic career with service in the Philippine Air Force, it was at Rio 2016 that Diaz made her big breakthrough with silver – the first Olympic medal won by a Filipino female.
Before Tokyo 2020, she had further distinguished herself on the international stage with Asian Games gold in 2018 and bronze at the 2017 and 2019 World Championships.