Monico Puentevella is a pillar of Philippine weightlifting. | photograph courtesy of Monico Puentevella

It’s rather easy to get close to long-time Bacolod politician and Samahang Weightlifting ng Pilipinas president Monico Puentevella.

On some days, he would be having breakfast with friends in one of Bacolod’s newly-opened classy hypermarkets just a short drive from his residence.

Sometimes, he would be seen playing competitive — and not recreational — tennis.

And a few times, he would be dropping by the market and other public areas just to mingle with his provincemates, the talk revolving around not just local and national politics and other pressing matters.

While Puentevella gets tickled pink discussing politics and his singing prowess, being a former Tawag ng Tanghalan titleholder, he would rather talk about his passion: sports.

Basketball is close to his heart being a former member of the La Salle team.

Boxing, too since he is not just a massive Manny Pacquiao fan but a practitioner of the fight game as well.

But when asked about weightlifting, his eyes light up and the tone of his voice goes up a notch.

It was weightlifting that made him an immortal in the history of Philippine sports.

And the name that will always be associated with him is Hidilyn Diaz, who became the country’s first Olympic champion during the Tokyo Games of 2021.

“I could still vividly remember when I was praying before the Tokyo Olympics. I said, ‘God you can take me after we win the Philippines’ first Olympic gold medal.’”

“I said, ‘You can take me if that happens. But I think I am so blessed because I am still here,’” said the 77-year-old former mayor and congressman of Bacolod City.

Puentevella played a pivotal part in Diaz’s meteoric rise as he was with the Zamboanga lifter during her first foray in the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing.

When Diaz tried her luck in London 2012, Puentevella was there.

And when Diaz made a breakthrough silver medal finish in Rio 2016, Puentevella was present to celebrate the milestone.

Of course, in Tokyo during the pandemic, Puentevella cried with Diaz as the Philippines put an end to the country’s 100-year-old heartbreak.

“Diaz inspired everyone and now she has a very stable life,” Puentevella said, noting how the cash rewards not just from the government but from the private sector ramped up Diaz’s lifestyle.

Diaz is still around and is aiming to participate in her fifth Olympics in Paris in July.

Though signs are not that encouraging for Diaz, Puentevella swears she could still make it to the podium, a fitting event just before her retirement.

That’s also the same path Puentevella is looking at.

“After Paris, I will be retiring,” he said.

But he is not sailing into the sunset.

“The Los Angeles Olympics (in 2028) will be my next goal,” said Puentevella, stressing that he would still be lending a hand in the Philippines’ buildup for 2028.

Actually, even with Diaz’s retirement looming, Puentevella insists “the future of Philippine weightlifting is bright.”

“I can see the future and it is very, very bright,” he said.

Puentevella said that Diaz’s rise made the Philippines a powerhouse in weightlifting globally.

“Twenty years ago, we were still in the learning phase but nowadays, it is a different case. Whenever a Filipino lifter goes up the stage, even the Chinese are watching us.”

“When we started, we were really way off the track.”

Monico Puentevella was born 2 July 1946 in the City of Smiles.

Before his political success, “Newks,” Puentevella’s nickname, worked at the Philippine National Bank and with companies specializing in sugar and its production and distribution.

He also dabbled in print journalism and even in television and radio broadcasting.

Later, he was appointed as commissioner in the Philippine Sports Commission (1996 until 2001) and eventually handled the affairs of weightlifting.

It was when he presided over weightlifting that Puentevella made his mark in the sports community.

“There was a time, we were not being noticed. We would go to the Olympics and nothing would happen. But now we are genuine competitors: A force to be reckoned with.”

In case Diaz doesn’t make the grade for Paris, Puentevella feels the young guns have what it takes to take charge.

There’s Vanessa Sarno, said to be Diaz’s heir apparent, as well as Elreen Ando and Rosegie Ramos, according to Puentevella, whose pool is spiked with young talent.

“This is the future. They represent the future of Philippine weightlifting,” said Puentevella, who was inducted into the International Weightlifting Federation Hall of Fame in Albania in 2022.

In fact, Puentevella is excited to showcase the next batch of stars when Manila hosts the Asian Youth and Junior championships this November.

But finding and help not just from the government but from the private sector will be the key.

“The MVP Group, SM Group, Ayala Land, the PSC, these are the people who will keep weightlifting to where it is right now. If they don’t get tired of supporting weightlifting, there will be more top talents for the Olympics.”

By then, Puentevella hopes to be still around.

“I told myself that I would still help in the pursuit of Olympic gold medals. Until God takes me away, that’s what I am going to do.”

What makes weightlifting’s rise extra-special for Puentevella is the fact that the association is relying heavily on pure local talent.

“We are the only NSA (national sports association) that doesn’t need the help of an import to win an Olympic gold medal,” he said proudly.

And how does he want to be remembered?

“I would like to be remembered as someone who did everything to win (Olympic) gold.”

Raise a glass for “Newks.”