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Diaz battles Rio champ

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She may be the country’s most decorated athlete, but the weightlifting competition of the 31st Southeast Asian Games will not be a picnic for Hidilyn Diaz.

Diaz, the first Filipino to win an Olympic gold medal, will be stacked against an Olympic champion when she defends her title in the women’s 55kg event of the biennial meet on Friday at the Palace of Culture inside the Hanoi Sports Training and Competition Center.

In the start list released by SEA Games organizers, Diaz will go head to head with Sanikun Tanasan of Thailand, whom the Bangkok Post tagged as one of the Thai athletes to watch in the ongoing biennial meet.

The 27-year-old Tanasan is a gold medalist in the women’s 48-kilogram division of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics — the same event where Diaz clinched the silver medal in the women’s 53-kg class.

The following year, she ruled the women’s 53kg event of the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, California to cement her status as one of the best lifters in the world.

But she was not able to see action in the Tokyo Olympics last year after the Thai Amateur Weightlifting Association was slapped with a two-year ban after six of its athletes tested positive for banned substance during the 2018 World Championships in Turkmenistan.

“Sanikun herself was also suspended for two years from January 2019,” the Bangkok Post, Thailand’s biggest news outlet, said, referring to the lifter who used to be known as Sopita.

“The Chumphon native will compete in the 55kg class in Vietnam and will be eager for redemption,” it added.

Aside from Tanasan, Diaz will also face Nguyen Thiu Hien of Vietnam, Natasya Beteyob of Indonesia, Poch Tan of Cambodia and Elly Cassendra Engelbert of Malaysia.

Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella confirmed the presence of the Thai powerhouse, but stressed that Diaz is beaming with confidence heading into her first major tournament since winning the Olympic gold medal.

“Yes, they will have a face-off tomorrow,” Puentevella said in an interview from the Vietnamese capital.

“But Hidi (Diaz) is ready. She looks confident and very prepared physically, mentally and emotionally. We’re excited to see what she’s going to show tomorrow.”

Diaz said she will do her best to defend her title.

“Everyone of us can win a gold medal and I can’t cite names because all of us are doing our best to perform at the highest level,” the 31-year-old Diaz, who trained at Ho Chi Minh City for a week under her coach, Julius Naranjo, before plunging into SEA Games action.

“I can’t make a prediction since everybody is capable of winning.”

Also tipped to have a tough time is Olympian Elreen Ando in the women’s 64kg category.

Ando, the pride of Cebu City, will be facing 23-year-old Rodsukon Sonkaew, who holds Thailand’s national record in snatch, clean and jerk, and total categories of the women’s 64kg event.

Other Filipino athletes who will vie in the biennial meet are Asian champion Vanessa Sarno, SEA Games titlist Kristel Macrohon, SEA Games silver medalist Margaret Colonia, Asian Championships silver medalist Mary Flor Diaz and Rosegie Ramos in the women’s side.

In the men’s division, scheduled to see action are Rio Olympian Nestor Colonia, Fernando Agad, John Dexter Tabigue, Rowel Garcia, John Kevin Padullo and Lemon Tarro.

They will be coached by Gregorio Colonia, Nicolas Jaluag, Gary Hortelano and Patrick Lee.

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