ATHLETE OF THE YEAR. Tokyo Olympic weightlifting gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz receives another Athlete of the Year award during the San Miguel Corporation-Philippine Sportswriters Association (SMC-PSA) Awards Night held at the Diamond Hotel grand ballroom on Monday (March 6, 2023). She was joined on stage by (L-R) Philippine Sportswriters Association (PSA) president Rey Lachica, Philippine Olympic Committee president Bambol Tolentino and Philippine Sports Commission chair Richard Bachmann. (Photo courtesy of PSA)

MANILA – As track greats Lydia de Vega and Elma Muros Posadas along with Tokyo Olympic weightlifting gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz-Naranjo have shown, there is so much outstanding local athletic talents just waiting to be discovered who can excel on the world stage, according to former Project Gintong Alay head Michael Keon.

“There is so much talent in this country that falls through the cracks in the system and it is really 'sayang',” noted Keon, who paid homage to the late De Vega as the former Asian sprint queen was installed in the Hall of Fame during the San Miguel Corporation-Philippine Sportswriters Association (SMC-PSA) Awards Night held Monday at the packed Diamond Hotel grand ballroom.

Now the Mayor of Laoag City in Ilocos Norte province, Keon revealed he had talked with Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) chairperson Richard “Dickie” Bachmann last week on how the sports agency could accomplish this goal.

“We talked about what is important to Philippine sports now. I advised him (Bachmann) that the PSC should concentrate together with the National Sports Associations because there is so much talent in this country,” said the country’s former sports czar of his dialogue with the PSC honcho in Laoag.

“I believe chairman Bachmann is receptive to our advice and will initiate this with the help of the NSAs,” said Keon in the grand affair presented by the PSC and Cignal TV, and backed by the POC, Tagaytay City Mayor Bambol Tolentino, MILO, Smart, MVP Sports Foundation, Rain or Shine, 1Pacman Representative Mikee Romero, Philippine Basketball Association, OKBet, ICTSI, and the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation.

A former athlete himself, Keon was grateful for the opportunity in shaping the celebrated athletic career of Diay, De Vega’s nickname, lamenting she could have attained greater heights had she focused on the women’s 400-meter race instead of the glamorous 100 and 200-meter sprint events.

“The first competition that Gintong Alay had was the UAAP vs. Gintong Alay which was in May 1980. Lydia de Vega ran the 400 meters, not the 100, not the 200. She broke the Asian Games record, the SEA Games record, and the Philippine record of 54.6 seconds at the age of 16,” he recalled.

“Now you all know that physical athletes mature at 22 to 26. Now if Lydia had continued to train in the 400 meters, she would have easily scored 50 seconds for the 400 and which would put her in an Olympic final… she would have been in my eyes an Olympic champion,” Keon said.

But he pointed out that “this does not detract from her being the Asian Games gold medalist twice, it does not detract from that,” referring to the comely sprinter’s back-to-back gold medals in the century dash in the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and the 1986 Seoul Asiad.

“Having said that, she (De Vega) is still the pinaka-best athlete that this country ever had and I was fortunate enough to be a part in training her. I am happy with her legacy and she really deserves this award,” Keon said.

For her part, Diaz, who was discovered at a young age in Zamboanga City carrying huge pails of water from the neighborhood water pump to help meet her poor family’s needs, underscored the hard work, dedication and sacrifice needed to hone her athletic skills to an elite level.

Nagbunga ang lahat ng sacrifices, juggling ko sa studies, an athlete, at sa military (All my sacrifices bore fruit, juggling to my studies, as an athlete and in the military), and as a wife of my husband Julius Naranjo,” said the weightlifting standout, who was cited as PSA Athlete of the Year for the fourth time for her golden treble at the world weightlifting championships in Bogota, Colombia last December.

‘It shows that if you really want something, you work hard for it and inspired by those who believe in you and support you, can achieve great things in life,” said Diaz, who is set to graduate this year from College of St. Benilde with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, major in Business Management.

“Nagbubunga na rin po yung pagsisikap ng seven years at ga-graduate na rin ako (After seven years of hard work, I will finally graduate),” said the athlete, who became an athletic scholar of the school after winning a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, beaming.

Now no longer a spring chicken at 32, Diaz said her aspiration of appearing in a fifth straight Olympics and bringing more honor for the country was far from over.

“Sa mga nagsasabi it’s too late to start, hindi ako naniniwala diyan (Those who said it’s too late to start, I don’t believe in that). Age is just a number. Ang importante dun (What is important here) is that we love what we are doing. For our fellow athletes, we are doing this for love of our country and for our sports,” she said.

She twitted at her critics who said that she was over the hill. “Sa mga nagba-bash sa akin, mas na-challenge ako kaya okay lang (To my bashers, you are challenging me more).” (PNA)