Hidilyn, Nesthy, and Carlo Paalam open New Year hoping to making it to Paris
For the nation’s premier athletes, the journey to the gates of the 2024 Paris Olympics is already strewn with obstacles, that even the best of them have not been spared, like Hidilyn Diaz-Naranjo, the 55-kilogram weightlifting queen in Tokyo who is still scrambling for a spot in the glitzy fashion capital together with 2020 boxing silver medalists Carlo Paalam and Nesthy Petecio.
For Diaz-Naranjo, the desire to get into a fifth straight Games has been so big that she was willing to go up to the 59-kg class after her old domain was scrubbed off from next year’s Olympic program.
Also the silver medalist in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games at 55 kg, Diaz-Naranjo is progressing in a manner that positioned her to another appearance in the quadrennial global meet, placing seventh in the 59 kg of the 2023 International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) World Championships late this year in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to be well within range of an Olympic slot with two more tournaments remaining.
The top 10 lifters in each weight category will advance to the Olympics after completing a series of five meets sanctioned by the IWF, and Diaz-Naranjo is intent on sealing it in the Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Feb. 3 to Feb. 10 and the IWF World Cup in Phuket, Thailand, on April 2 to April 11.
“The biggest challenge I’m facing is increasing my muscle mass to contend with the stronger competitors in our weight class. So far, I like my progress, and I now see that a medal in Paris is possible,’’ said Diaz-Naranjo.
Guided by her husband-coach Julius with the backing of Team HD, Diaz-Naranjo prefers to train silently, building her own gym in Jala-Jala, Rizal, and setting up training camps in the United States and Bahrain last year for a constant change of scenery.
“I still need to qualify and it’s hard to sustain the training that I do six days in a week. If you want to be a champion, you need people behind you. With the help of God and Team HD, I know I can still do it,’’ said Diaz-Naranjo.
There’s an ample amount of roadblocks to the podium standing on her way with world champion Luo Shifang of China, Ukraine’s Kamila Konotop and Chinese Taipei’s Kuo Hsing-chun, among them.
“Lots of sacrifices. Diet, weight gain, injuries and time away from the family. I just have to keep on pushing myself to the limit,’’ said Diaz-Naranjo.
Petecio, meanwhile, needed just a semifinal appearance in the Asian Games (Asiad) in Hangzhou, China, last year to pack her gear for Paris. But that direct trip was foiled in the round of 16 of the women’s 57 kg by Chinese Taipei’s Lin Yu Ting, who exacted revenge on the Filipino lady pug, who booted her out of the medal round of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
With the opportunity slipping from her grasp, Petecio will be facing rougher roads ahead with only two more Olympic qualification meets left.The 31-year-old from Santa Cruz, Davao del Sur, showed no pretense in admitting that this will certainly be her last shot at the Olympics. Petecio has to make it either in the World Qualification Tournament 1 in Busto Arsizio, Italy, on Feb. 29 to March 12 or the World Qualification Tournament 2 on May 23 to June 5 in Bangkok, Thailand.
“The desire to compete in Paris has been stronger than ever. I consider this as my last shot before ending my career,’’ said Petecio in Filipino.
Luckily for Petecio, six Olympic spots are still open in both meets. She has to progress to the finals of the Busto Arsizio qualifier while a semifinal showing in Bangkok will be enough for her to get to Paris.
“It could have been easier in the Asian Games, but I missed that chance. I expect the world qualifiers to be much tougher than the continental qualifier,’’ said Petecio.
Although Petecio’s tormentor in Tokyo—Sena Irie of Japan—has already retired, the women’s featherweight division remains crowded with title contenders in Bulgaria’s Svetlana Staneva, Tunisia’s Khouloud Hlimi, Colombia’s Valeria Arboleda, Kazakhstan’s Karina Ibragimova, Lin and Tina Rahimi of Australia, among others.“Based on my performance in the Asian Games, there are things that I need to improve on and I’m working on it. I won’t stop until I get that gold in Paris,’’ said Petecio.
But she has to get there first.
Paalam, on the other hand, is literally ranged against taller odds.
To slide back or not
From his current class at 57 kg, Paalam is considering sliding back to his old fighting weight—the 51 kg where he achieved fame and fortune by claiming a silver medal in Tokyo.
And with the clock fast ticking, the 25-year-old pride of Talakag, Bukidnon, should immediately make the practical choice before the World Qualification Tournaments for Paris arrive early next year.
“You just saw my opponents in the Asian Games. They are all taller than me. But I have no regrets, I did my best in every fight,’’ said Paalam in Filipino after world champion Abdumalik Khalokov of Uzbekistan ushered him out of the medal round in the 57 kg of the Asiad.
He was vertically challenged by Jordan’s Jajeh Abu in the round-of-32 and was again quicker against Uulu Seiitbek of Kyrgyzstan in the round-of-16, but Paalam’s speed and high aptitude in the ring didn’t work well against Khalokov.
They’ll be the same bunch of sluggers he’ll meet in the world Olympic qualifying meets.
Add to the list Olympic qualifiers Lyu Ping of China, Japan’s Shudai Harada, Salim Hossain of Bangladesh and Thailand’s Rujakran Juntrong, among others, all of them gifted with longer limbs.
Paalam was the bantamweight champion during the 2022 Asian championships in Amman, Jordan, and won two golds in the Southeast Asian Games this year in Cambodia in the same division and in 2019 Manila as a flyweight.He seemed satisfied with the adjustment he made so far at featherweight, a division completely alien to Paalam.
“I adjusted well (at 57 kg). I might have lost in the Asian Games, but I also won against rated boxers in this division and it only sharpened my skills and intelligence in the ring,’’ said Paalam.
“They won’t take me for granted, now they know what I’m capable of,’’ added Paalam.
Still, the clock is ticking for these Filipino Olympics aces, and they will have an entire country rooting for them when they spend the first part of 2024 trying to get to Paris.