In SEA Games, Elreen Ando gets chance to polish her shine
Elreen Ann Ando took the marker pen offered to her by an autograph seeker, uncertain of exactly what she was supposed to do.
“You want me to sign?” she asked.
Yes, she was told. The Tokyo Olympian uncapped the pen and, in unsure strokes, affixed her signature on a red paper board and scribbled a short message.
Perhaps Ando isn’t the kind of athlete who is accustomed to being stopped for autographs. Maybe the most she gets out of weightlifting supporters who recognize her is a photo request. Whatever the reason was, her tentativeness was in sharp contrast to how her national teammate deals with fans.
About a month after the Tokyo Olympics, Hidilyn Diaz-Naranjo, who won the gold that ended the country’s dry spell in the Summer Games, spoke at the steps of the Manila Central Post Office after being honored by the Philippine Post Office with commemorative stamps bearing her image.
After her speech, she was mobbed by fans and, her face slowly birthing beads of sweat, she calmly obliged everyone who asked her to sign autographs and even orchestrated a system so that everybody would get their turn.
Ando vs Diaz
The difference between Diaz-Naranjo and the Ando will spill over to the weightlifting stage this year as both athletes will clash head-on for that lone Philippine spot in the women’s 59-kilogram event in the 2024 Paris Olympics.
While Diaz-Naranjo’s journey toward another Olympic gold is being followed by sports fans, either through traditional media reports or through her social media accounts, particularly in Instagram where her husband and coach Julius Naranjo posts regularly, Ando’s own Paris bid gets very little media play.
“I’ve doubled my training,” she said, when asked how she is coping with the pressure of going up against the country’s biggest sporting hero right now. “I have faith in my coach that he’ll do everything so I can be competitive.”
Ando will spearhead the national weightlifting squad that will go through the year participating in Olympic qualifiers in the world hoping to be among the top eight in their respective divisions to book a ticket to Paris.
Before that, she and four other members of the weightlifting squad will pull off double duty as they fly to Korea on May 2 and compete in the first of many Olympic qualifying legs they are required to play in before flying to Cambodia for the 32nd Southeast Asian Games.
For some of the members of that team, there will only be a week in between their events in both competitions.
“When they fly back from Korea, they’ll have just enough time to do their laundry before they fly again to Cambodia,” joked Nick Jaluag, one of the weightlifting coaches.
While it may seem quite a heavy task, Edmundo Cardano, another member of the national weightlifting coaching staff, said that might turn out to be an advantage.
“If they medal in Korea, they will become bolder in the [SEA Games],” said the 62-year-old two-time gold medalist of the regional meet.
For Ando, the back-to-back meets will provide her a glimpse of how she has adapted to her new weight division. When the International Olympic Committee announced it was limiting the weight classes for the Paris Games, two of the divisions it scrapped were the 55-kg class, where Diaz-naranjo won the gold in Tokyo, and the 64-kg event, where Ando competes.
Diaz-Naranjo thus moved up in weight while Ando moved down.
While both have yet to field official results in their new weight, Ando feels at home in the lighter class.
“The more that I reduced weight, the more I have speed in my movements,” Ando said. “At 64 (kgs), my movements were a bit slow. When I dropped to 59, there’s more speed.
“I’m stronger at 59 than in 64,” she added.
The SEA Games will be a perfect test for her. There will be no pressure of trying to earn ranking points to qualify for Paris, but there will still be that hunger for victory.
“I want to win my first SEA Games gold,” Ando said.
The team has been doing great in preparations, according to coach Samuel Alegada, who monitors the national athletes’ load and weight during training.
“The morale is good,” Alegada, who competed in the Seoul Olympics in 1988, said.
“We have periods of preparation,” Cardano said. “First, we condition the bodies of the athletes. Then there’s the pre-competition preparation. And then there’s the competition period [preparation], which is where we are now. It’s a two-week preparation for the competition. Everyone is practicing the assimilation of competition, so we can boost them psychologically so the athletes will have a lot of courage.”
The team members seem to be in the right head and emotional space.
“Our preparations are okay so far,” said Vanessa Sarno, the former Asian senior and junior champion at 71kgs. “There’s not much [pressure]. As of now, I’m already prepared to win again, to win the gold in the SEA Games. I’m more motivated now.”
John Fabuar Ceniza, a silver medalist in men’s 55kg who will now compete in the 61kg because of the shrinking of weightlifting events, said training has been so good, he has increased his personal best by 13kgs.
“Focus and discipline,” he said were the keys to his improvement. “I want to have a medal in every competition and without discipline, that won’t happen.”
“For now, I’m okay and I’ve doubled my training, jogging,” said Dave Llyod Pacaldo, who is focusing solely on the regional meet. “I’m training in the morning and the afternoon just to be better prepare for the SEA Games.”
Pacaldo is targeting to lift 130kg in snatch and 170 in clean and jerk and has modest goals for now.
“I’ll be thankful if I just get the bronze, but I’ll aim for better,” he said.
The competition in the SEA Games is not expected to approximate the competition they will face for Olympic berths.
No one knows this more than Ando, who won’t cross paths with Diaz-Naranjo during the biennial meet.
But a strong performance in Cambodia will put her in the spotlight, at the very least.
“I’m motivating myself so when it comes to the tournament, I can just enjoy the game,” she said.
Ando said she hasn’t talked with Diaz-Naranjo yet about their looming showdown but isn’t worried about whatever fallout their clash could create.
“It’s just sports,” she said. “It’s nothing personal.”
The weightlifter from Cebu may have been a picture of hesitation when she signed her autograph. But the message she wrote alongside her signature was resolute.
“Hindi hihinto kung hindi ginto.” (I won’t stop until I get gold).
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