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The might and vision of extraordinary women

Filipino ladies, Hidilyn Diaz – Olympic weightlifter – and Ana Arce – deaf professor – walked the arduous path to achieve excellence and distinction. Looked upon as role models by the society, their faith and willpower emboldened them to get where they are now.

For a country that has failed to clinch an Olympic medal in 20 years, the silver medal that weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz brought home to the Philippines, after the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, was already considered a golden feat. People from all walks of life hailed the 25-year-old lady as a hero and model of the youth. But little did Filipinos know that there is more to Diaz’s strength than meets the eye.

In August, the world saw how a 5-feet tall Filipina lifted total weights that were four times her 53-kilogram physique but unknown to many were the sacrifices she underwent to get there. Diaz’s road to Rio de Janeiro actually started while she was still an 11-year-old country girl who would walk 50 meters to fetch water from a community water pump in Mampang, Zamboanga City, in Southern Philippines.

The young lass would walk home lifting two pails of water with her bare hands every time their household needed water supply, unaware that their family’s lack of access to water was metaphorically setting the path for her Olympic career.

The young Diaz learned the basics of weightlifting from her gym buff cousin, Allan Jayfrus Diaz. She went on to compete for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, as a 17-year-old wild card entry who became the first female weightlifter to represent the Philippines in the Olympic Games. She also competed in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, United Kingdom, but she failed to clinch a medal.


Silver medalist

Just before the 2016 Olympic Games, Diaz was planning on quitting the sport. According to Coach Alfonsito Aldanete, Diaz almost quit in 2014 after failing to qualify in the Southeast Asian Games. Diaz was mulling on working as a fitness instructor in the United States after government sports authorities had reduced her monthly allowance to P9,600 (US$195) from P40,000 (US$816). Aldanete convinced Diaz to give Rio 2016 Olympics her last try, and she did make it count.

Diaz made history when she became the first Filipino woman who won one of the Philippines’ nine medals since the country participated in the Olympic Games in 1924. She earned one of the country’s two Olympic silver medals.

“I have tried so hard and stumbled many times. I wanted to quit but now all of my sacrifices have paid off,” Diaz said after her historic victory, which coincided with her mother’s August 7 birth anniversary. Diaz is the fifth of six children born to tricycle driver Eduardo Diaz and his housewife Emelita.

An enlisted Airwoman First Class, Diaz was supposed to study in Missouri after the 2016 Olympic Games but she changed her mind and has set her eyes on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

“Now, I want to win a gold medal in Tokyo 2020 Olympics. I didn’t accept the scholarship offer from Lindenwood University to study in the United States but I will, eventually, study in De La Salle College of St. Benilde in Manila. I haven’t decided yet on which course to take but I am leaning towards sports. I want to study and train for the SEA Games, Asian Games and Olympic Games at the same time.”


Spiritual strength

Apart from building her physical stamina, Diaz emphasized the importance of nurturing spiritual strength based on her faith story. “As a young girl, I always prayed to God to guide me in life because I really didn’t know what the future holds,” she shared. “In times of trials, faith in God is what I hold onto, keeping in mind that God has a purpose in everything. It is in faith that I find hope when things go out of control. I conquered all of my problems because of God’s guidance.”

Before her Olympic victory in Brazil, Diaz said she surrendered everything to God. “I just said to Him in prayer, ‘I surrender everything to You, Lord. I’m prepared and ready to compete but I also acknowledge that Your will be done.”

Diaz’s fellow Philippine Air Force personnel look up to her with respect and admiration and her story has touched the lives of young Filipino women, especially female athletes.

“Women need someone successful to look up to. I hope to inspire them to dream high in life,” she said, adding that “we are all created equal by God but we have different talents, so we should use them. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Always believe in yourself and that you are on this earth for a reason. Every girl can excel in whatever field she decides to pursue.”

Aside from aiming for an Olympic medal, the Filipina weightlifter said she also aspires to become a wife and mother later in life. “I also want to get married and have children. I want my kids to be God-centered and raised with moral values. Attitude is the most important thing in sports.”

While training for the next Summer Olympics in 2020, Diaz remains preoccupied with her various public engagements, including running the Mampang Weightlifting Gym, which she established next to her country home using a portion of her Olympic winnings and monetary incentives from supporters.

Diaz said she wants to inspire and train young weightlifters who want to follow her footsteps. “I don’t like to be on the spotlight,” she admitted. “I felt awkward about it but I have to get used to it because the younger generation of Filipinos are rooting for me. They look up to me as an inspiration. The journey of winning an Olympic medal is difficult. I am asking your prayers so that I will survive everything,” Diaz added.


The role model for the deaf

Despite her physical disability, Ana Kristina Arce is a woman of strength. Her character and vision make her not only a role model among deaf students but also an inspiration among women who are battling countless odds for acceptance and empowerment.

After graduating from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila in 2009, Arce was named the first Filipino to be awarded the Nippon-Gallaudet World Deaf Leadership Scholarship to pursue graduate studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. But before achieving her academic merits and impressive citations, Arce has walked an arduous path to get where she is now.

“People cannot change the fact that I cannot hear but they even treated me as someone who cannot communicate or learn at all,” she said. “I felt ostracized in a school where hearing and deaf students attend classes together. Even though deaf students are given interpreters, the academic community does not understand the culture and the sensitivities of deaf people. I was often separated from reports and groupings, and I felt incapable of learning further.”

Being sent to De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde’s School of Deaf Education and Applied Studies was the tipping point in Arce’s life as a student. “The DLS-CSB SDEAS changed my life,” she said. “It opened a community for me within which I was encouraged to learn more about my language and capacities as a deaf person.

This school gave me the chance to learn our natural sign language and provided an environment and culture where I can grow and belong. Even after graduation, opportunities and blessings continued to come, all because of the College’s vision and heart for deaf people who yearn for accessibility and acceptance.”

The education and training she received from attending the world’s only liberal arts institution for deaf and hard of hearing students are what she imparts to her students at the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde where she has been working as a full-time college instructor and general education coordinator for the Applied Deaf Studies Program since September 2014.

“When deaf students arrive in our College, they are usually shy or quiet,” she recounted. “They have not yet accepted themselves as deaf persons. I did my best to teach them and to show great examples of successful deaf people which, in time, opened their minds and had them embrace their deaf identity and culture. That is the reason why I am passionate in teaching the Deaf Studies field: to motivate students to be better deaf persons as well as to encourage them to become leader-advocates.”


Double identity

Despite having a supportive family and community, Arce admitted struggling as a woman. “As a deaf woman, I live with a double identity,” she said. “There is always a communication barrier since we are living in a hearing world. As a woman with disability, my parents have always been overprotective, and it also took them time to accept me as a deaf person. Growing up, I had to conform to the hearing world in terms of language and culture but I just can’t fit in and I struggled for years.

“During challenging times, as a Christian, I would often remember the work of Christ in me, and what I can do with Him. Being saved by accepting Christ as my personal Savior and Lord was the turning point that gave me the strength and the guidance to develop a relationship that trusts in His grace, in Him alone. It taught me to live my faith in Christ despite life’s challenges, especially with my disability. Patience is truly a virtue, and I believe God has always led me to paths He intends me to be in.”

Arce’s advocacy to promote deaf rights goes beyond the classroom. She founded the non-government organization, Development and Accessibility Fund for the Deaf in 2010, following the footsteps of deaf advocate Raphy Domingo of the Philippine Federation of the Deaf and heeding the inspiring words of deaf South African professor Lindsay Dunn who is known worldwide for his involvement in deaf social justice movements.

While Arce is capable of pursuing postgraduate studies, she said she prefers to stay involved in the deaf advocacy movement to help empower her community.

“For now, my dream is to see the Filipino Sign Language (FSL) Bill passed to become a law. It would give us opportunities and access that we long deserve to have, from rights to access to interpreting services in all public services including signed insets in news and in media. The teachers must teach deaf students using FSL in all schools for the deaf. I would like to see FSL be formally treated as the official or national sign language of the Filipino deaf people by the legislators. This will give way to deaf children to use FSL as their first language to improve their literacy and critical thinking skills in all public and private schools for the deaf. FSL is both an academic and a social language. Through this legislation, the deaf will also have access to interpreting services at hospitals, courts, schools, theaters, churches, sports, conferences/meetings and other places. We have to break the communication barrier in our country.”

“I also hope to see that day when a deaf individual becomes a legislator, a dean of a college, a professor with PhD, or holds other significant kinds of work that are usually thought of as exclusive to hearing persons.”


Ability for everything

Arce maintained that deaf people can do anything except to hear. “Most people believe that the deaf are also mute which is totally baseless,” she said. “Physically, our tongue is perfectly normal. We cannot talk because we cannot hear audible sounds. We are simply deaf. Also, a lot of people think that we are not capable of learning just because we cannot hear. The perception that deaf people can’t learn in school without hearing is also not true. They can learn through sign language. A lot of deaf people have finished college and some of them have even completed master’s or doctoral degrees.”

Arce kept telling her students and other deaf individuals: “There’s a community meant for you and that there are hearing and able-bodied allies who are also willing to help you. Within or without reach, learn to stand and fight for your rights to access to communication and information. Be also patient but never contented in achieving these. Believe that you can do anything, except hear.”

Just like most women, Arce also wants to settle down and raise her own family. “I want to settle in a family that accepts me as I am,” she shared. “This also goes to being a good testimony not only among the deaf but as being Christ-like to people who are lost and in need of guidance. It would be too perfect to live in a world where all deaf and hearing people can work together. Every chance I have to meet people who believe in this already makes me happy and feel blessed.”


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