Hidilyn Diaz of the Philippines stood triumphantly atop the Olympic podium in Tokyo, having won the gold medal in the 55-kilogram category of women’s weightlifting. Leading up to that moment — a big first for her country — had been a training journey unlike any other.
The 30-year-old weightlifter and airwoman was stuck in Malaysia with her team for months, unable to leave the country for an Olympic qualifying event in Peru because of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Stranded with no open gyms to train at, Diaz improvised. She built her own gym, training with very little professional equipment. Instead, she created lifting sets out of jugs of water and bamboo sticks.
Her unique setup was reminiscent of her origins in weightlifting. As a child, she would use plastic pipes and concrete weights to lift. She documented her training on social media, posting videos of herself doing pullups from door frames, sprinting up parking ramps. She later filled duffle bags with water jugs balanced on either side of her bamboo stick.
“Time flies so fast during this pandemic. The lockdown started last March and now, we are approaching December,” she wrote in an Instagram post in November 2020. “We were wondering where we would train and if our journey toward Olympics will stop. Good thing I’m with good company and we became creative to find ways to train. We do everything to stay in track and in shape for Olympics.”
And it paid off. In Tokyo on Monday, Diaz won the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal after nearly 100 years. And she set an Olympic record.
“I sacrificed a lot. I wasn’t able to be with my mother and father for how many months and years and then of course, training was excruciating,” Diaz said after her gold medal win, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “But God had a plan.”
Josie Fischels is an intern on NPR’s News Desk.