Heavy lifter: Hidilyn Diaz carried many weights gracefully in the 2010s

As the decade draws to a close, the ESPN5.com editorial staff look back at the sporting figures and moments that stood out and helped define Philippine sports in the 2010s. Check back regularly until December 31 for the latest features in our ESPN5.com Best of the Decade series.

We honor the athletes who excelled in the 2010s, those who made their mark, raised the bar, and collected championship trophies along the way. Hidilyn Diaz started the 2010s with modest success in the Southeast Asian Games. But by decade's end, not only did she end a 20-year Olympic medal drought for the Philippines, she had also bagged golds at the 2015 Asian Weightlifting Championship, 2018 Asian Games and 2019 Southeast Asian Games. Her exploits have inspired many young Filipinos to give weightlifting a try, while also giving her a platform to push for the welfare of her fellow athletes.

When people ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, some say they want to be doctors. Some want to be teachers, while others want to be pilots or astronauts.

Hidilyn Diaz wanted to be a banker.

It wasn't ideal, but Hidilyn said she wanted to work closely with money so her mom would stop whining about it.

"We were poor back then," she said. "When I was a kid, I told her I wanted to work in a bank and count money. Then eventually get married and raise a kid. The thought of winning in the Olympics never entered my mind."

Growing up, no kid ever really cares about the Olympics or even dreams of being a part of it. But that's where Hidilyn ended up, in the Summer Games, winning a silver medal for the Philippines. She may have not worked at a bank, but with weightlifting, she was still able to lift her family from poverty.

"My father was a tricycle driver before, then he became a farmer and a fisherman. Now, thanks to weightlifting, our life in Zamboanga changed. I was able to buy land for my sibling and for my gym. I was able to help my family and kids who grew up without a home."

Hidilyn tried several sports, like basketball and volleyball, when she was young, but she failed in all of them. When she tried her hand in weightlifting, she instantly knew it was something she could excel in.

At first, she used weightlifting for scholarships and opportunities to fly to other places. But soon, she found out that weightlifting would lead her to much bigger things.

Hidilyn lifted the entire nation when she won a silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming the first Filipina athlete to win an Olympic medal. It was also the country's first Olympic medal in 20 years.

The experience of competing on the world's biggest stage is something she will always cherish.

"For me, it's a big deal to compete in the Olympics because it's so tough to qualify. The best of the best are in the Olympics, all of the athletes work hard to get there," she said. "So I was proud to represent the Philippines in the Olympics and hopefully soon I get to win the country a gold medal."

Before the 2016 Olympics, Hidilyn had already succeeded in numerous competitions, winning medals in the SEA Games (bronze in 2007, silvers in 2011 and 2013), Asian Weightlifting Championship (gold in 2015, bronze in 2016), and World Weightlifting Championship (bronze in 2015).

When she won the silver in Rio, it only set her up for more success in the competitions that came after that -- bronze in 2017 and 2019 World Championships, silver in 2019 Asian Championship, a gold in the 2018 Asian Games and another gold in the recently-concluded SEA Games here in Manila.

That's a total of 13 medals. Some athletes are lucky to end their career with just one medal or one championship, but she has 13. THIRTEEN.

"Hidilyn is a hero not only to women, but to the whole country." Tim Cone

And she's far from done. She still has a lot more events to compete in, and she also has an enormous chance of qualifying for Tokyo 2020, so another appearance in the Olympics -- which would be her fourth straight -- is also on the horizon.

"It was a different story back in 2016 because no one expected that I would win," she said. "In 2020, everyone now believes we have a chance to win a medal in the Olympics. Of course, the pressure and the expectations are high."

After going through many battles here and abroad, the wear and tear is slowly taking a toll on Hidilyn's body. With the help of her core team, she has now gone scientific with her training to prevent injuries and prolong her career. She has become strict with her diet and does more warm-ups and stretching than she ever did in the past.

"After 2016 it was tough for me to maintain my power because I am getting older. My strength was going down instead of up. I needed help with my training. In 2016, I trained by myself. But for the 2020 Olympics, I need to be wise, because I want to win in Tokyo," she said. "I need to prepare and formulate a strategy. I can't just go there to Japan and expect to win without doing anything."

Adjusting her regimen and accepting the fact she's no longer the same person as before are the reasons why Hidilyn remains good at what she does.

Basketball coach Tim Cone, a firm supporter of female athletes and whose name is synonymous to winning, is just one of the many people who believe Hidilyn is on a level higher than other Filipino athletes because of her sheer dedication to her craft.

"Hidilyn is a hero not only to women, but to the whole country. The amount of training and devotion she goes through the years is unimaginable," said Cone. "She shows all of us what we can achieve if we want it badly enough."

If you ask random people on the streets about who their favorite athlete is, chances are Hidilyn will be one of the common answers. A decade ago, Manny Pacquiao was the most compelling figure in Philippine sports. This decade, no other athlete achieved so much in their sport than Hidilyn.

She's just grateful to be able to do what she loves to do, and at the same time, inspire others to aim for their dreams as well.

"Honestly, I have no idea that people think I'm one of the most popular athletes in the Philippines. I'm just thankful to God that he gave me a chance to be a role model, for the youth to believe in the fact that Ate Hidilyn is a fighter, fighting for her dreams. Maybe God brought me here to inspire the youth to engage in sports and teach them the value of sports."

After the 2016 Summer Games, Hidilyn Diaz came back to the Philippines as a hero. News of her win made rounds on the internet, and footage of her performance in Rio was all over television. She did interviews on different shows, made courtesy calls here and there. She became an instant celebrity, and she became a household name.

For some athletes, succeeding in their sport or winning a prize as grand as an Olympic silver medal is enough to define their careers. But not for Hidilyn. She believes it was just the start of something else.

"I thought winning a medal in the Olympics was the end goal of an athlete, but I realized that we have a bigger responsibility to the youth," she shared. "After winning in Rio, it became my responsibility to speak out on issues. People were saying that I had no right to speak up because I was just an athlete. But we do have the right to speak and share what's on our minds."

She has supporters, but she knows she also has her fair share of haters. It does not bother her one bit, though.

"People change," she said. "My ultimate dream is to win the gold medal in the Olympics for our country. People don't know what I go through in training, they don't know why I am competing and sacrificing my body, but I understand that. Of course I'm thankful for the bashers and haters because they make me strong and make me humble at the same time."

Despite all the noise from critics and the exhaustion from all the training, Hidilyn remains true to her passion. She knows the only way to succeed is to stay motivated and bask in positivity.

"There are times when I want to quit, especially moments when I feel a lot of pain in my body, that I'm getting old. Sometimes I question why it's so hard, why it's difficult to win in the Olympics, and why I have to push myself hard in training. Sometimes I question why I need to give everything to the country, if people are deserving of what I work hard for. I can retire and walk away, but if I do that, I'm showing the world that we Filipinos easily give up," she said.

"What keeps me going is my goal, my goal for the country. We all want to win a gold medal in the Olympics, and for how many years no one has done it yet. I think it's also God's mission for me.

"The legacy I want to leave behind is that I chased my goals. Being an athlete doesn't last forever -- you don't always win, you don't always lose. In sports, it's not always miracles. Almost all the time, you have to work hard for it."

When we look back on this decade, we will remember what Hidilyn Diaz accomplished and the impact she had on Philippine sports. But more than the accolades, what will define her is her desire, through words and actions, to mold the younger generation into winners, whether in sports or life in general.

Hidilyn has taught us to be hopeful. She is living proof that good things happen when you follow your dreams.