Lydia De Vega, the country’s best known sports poster girl for the 80’s, is dead. Felled by breast cancer at a still tender age of 57, ‘Diay’, as she was fondly called by those close to her, was the greatest, and most sensational sports figure in Asia during her heydays in the late 80s. She was an inspiration not just for the nation’s ladies, but for the men as well, as she showed how – despite her humble beginnings – she could rise up and conquer the world.
Diay would blaze a trail for herself, as well as for her other Gintong Alay products discovered and developed by that sports visionary, Michael Keon. She became known as “Asia’s Sprint Queen”, who along with Elma Muros and Isidro Del Prado, led a dominant Philippine track campaign in that era. She started making waves at the age of 16, taking the country’s sprint crown by surprise. In 1981, at age 17, she made her international debut, capturing the SEA Games 200m and 400m events in record-breaking times. She then finally rose to prominence in Asia by bagging the ‘82 (at 18 years of age) and ‘86 editions (22 years old) of the ladies’ 100-meter dash in the Asian Games. She had a fierce, yet friendly rivalry with the Indian sprint sensation, PT Usha, a rivalry that captured the imagination of the whole Asian sports community. Diay would consistently harvest golds in the 100m, 200m, 400m and long jump events. She accomplished so much more accolades for herself and for the country from the 80s to the early 90s, making her one of the most bemedalled Filipino athletes in history. Lydia, with her lithesome figure, her graceful stride, her charming, innocent look; would conquer the hearts of an adoring nation, as well as a receptive Asian region.
Lydia would finally retire from active competition in 1994, after winning the 100m event in the Manila-Fujian Games. At age 30, she was now competing against a younger set of athletes. She had also gotten married by that time. It was time for her to take a bow. She would briefly take on the role of councilor in her town in Bulacan, before taking on jobs as lecturer, coach, trainor in the sport she so loved dearly. She was even invited to coach in Singapore for a time.
Diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2018, she underwent several procedures before finally succumbing this August 10, 2022 at the Makati Medical Center. She is survived by her husband, Paulo Mercado, and 2 children.
But aside from her accomplishments in the track field, Diay’s story is one of hard work, loyalty, and filial piety. Diay was originally coached by her own father, fondly called Tatang de Vega. Tatang provided her the basic pointers and supervised her training as a young kid. It was Tatang who instilled in her the character, the discipline, the willingness to sacrifice, in order to achieve victory. It was Tatang who woke her up early to train, and to make sure she was always well-grounded. When she started winning and gaining accolades, Michael Keon recruited her to join the Gintong Alay stable, where she could avail of top-of-the-line equipment, a strict food and diet regimen, plus scientific training from schooled trainors. Diay would join the program, but only if her dad, her original trainor, was allowed to join the training team. Having gone through so much trials and tribulations to get her to the top, Diay felt that Tatang should continue to be with her in her triumphs as well.
Despite becoming a poster girl for Philippine Sports, Diay always remained humble, was very approachable and well-grounded. Stories of her humility and friendship abound. The Singaporean school and community she touched expressed their sadness over the demise of a well-respected trainer and friend. PT Usha, her most competitive rival for the Asian sprints title in the 80s, recalls how she would go home with her bag filled with Philippine cosmetics and make-up products, all gifts from Lydia. She recalled how Lydia would easily capture the attention of everyone in the field, with her glamorous look, her simple beauty. “She came for training and for races wearing make-up and had a lot of fans. Everybody in our family liked her.” PT Usha even had a young cousin named after Lydia.
Lydia leaves behind an indelible mark that remains a source of national pride. Her inspiring journey to the top of her field would pave the way for the next generation of Filipinas – led by Hidilyn Diaz, Alyssa Valdez, Margilyn Didal, Nesthy Petecio, etc – ladies who also did not grow up with the proverbial silver spoon, to fight, to sacrifice, to work hard in order to achieve victory, not just in the sports arenas, but in life’s mightier struggles as well.
To Diay, we bid you adieu; and we thank you for the great example, the many feel-good memories, the pride, and most especially, the inspiration you have given our youth and our people in general. You will be remembered with kindness and with true love.
For a clearer view, just click on the pics. Cover photo courtesy of Celebrities Obituaries. Other pics courtesy of isamunangpatalastas, onmanorama, Asiaweek, Asian Athletics Association, Philippine News Agency, Sportsmaryosep.com, Facebook, What A Life!, Remate Online, Daily Motion, Telegraph India, Insidethegames.biz, Manila Standard.