She may not be an athlete, but her Facebook photos show her beaming and proudly holding up medals. During post-Olympics interviews with weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (gold medalist) and boxers Nesthy Petecio (silver), Carlo Paalam (silver), and Eumir Marcial (bronze), her name often cropped up when the Pinoy athletes were asked about how they prepared for the world’s most prestigious sporting event. Because if there is one thing these champs have in common besides being medalists at the recent 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it is training under sports nutritionist, Coach Jeaneth Aro.
Aro has gained popularity for being part of Team HD (Team Hidilyn Diaz), which also includes Head Coach Gao Kaiwen, Strength and Conditioning Coach Julius Naranjo, and Sports Psychologist Karen Katrina Trinidad. Hidilyn often acknowledges the team’s support as the crucial factor that let her take home the country’s first ever Olympic gold medal.
“Team HD began in late 2018 when the qualification for the Tokyo Olympics began,” explained Aro in a mix of Filipino and English during a Panahon TV interview. “Since then, Team HD has been with Hidilyn in every competition. All the team members were involved in the processes and strategies involved in all the competitions. We learned to refine our strategies on how to divide the tasks among ourselves. It was a long process—we really planned it weekly, and we learned to troubleshoot.
Being Hidilyn’s nutritionist
During Hidilyn’s iconic Olympic performance last July 26, 2021 in Tokyo, the camera showed her backstage in between lifts. As soon as Hidilyn sat down, Aro could be seen quickly throwing a towel around the weightlifting champ’s soldiers. Then she would twist open the cap of a bottled water, which she’d offer to Hidilyn. But besides on-site support, Aro’s main job is planning the weightlifter’s meals to ensure her optimum performance. This means handpicking food from the Olympic village canteen, which she sometimes brings personally to her clients like Hidilyn.
“I make her weekly meal plans based on her training needs and her goals on weight and body composition. The meal plans include the food measurements and supplements that she needs to take. But during the competition, I’m in charge of making sure she’s within the required weight range leading up to the weigh-in. I’m also in charge of her nutrition during recovery and the actual competition.”
Because Hidilyn’s training varies daily, Aro adjusts the meal plan according to the day’s session. To make sure Hidilyn is performing her best, Aro also keeps an eye on the competition. “We also gauge her competitor’s capabilities, so we know how far Hidilyn needs to catch up. I make sure her diet lets her maximize the benefits of her training. At the same time, this gives her the confidence and peace of mind that complements the mental skills she’s developing with our sports psychologist. Everything is interconnected. And I think it was successful because every team member was willing to work with each other, to be humble and to receive feedback. It was a holistic approach toward a higher goal.”
When asked if she allows cheat days for Hidilyn, Aro replied, “I don’t really call it a cheat day because I don’t want to sound like it is something that is forbidden for them to do. I call it a free meal or a free day wherein they can eat anything they like. Sometimes, it’s not just once a week. I just adjust the plan as long as we are getting the output that we want towards the goal.”
Aro with Pinoy medalists at the 2018 Asian Games (photo from Aro’s FB page)
The importance of nutrition in athletic training
Aside from the four Filipino medalists, Aro was in charge of three other Olympians in the Tokyo Olympics—boxer Irish Magno, rower Chris Nievares and Taekwondo athlete Kurt Barbosa. She also handles clients abroad, the Talk ‘N Text basketball team, and boxer Mark Magsayo, who won against Mexican fighter Julio Ceja last August 22, 2021.
For Aro, the success of these athletes are backed by science, which includes proper nutrition. “During the training phase, a good nutrition program will help the athlete perform maximally.” She gives the following benefits when athletes are well-fueled:
- Athletes can give their best effort during actual training sessions.
- Their bodies are assured of maximum benefits, so the training sessions are not wasted.
- Athletes avoid getting sick, and can quickly recover from intense trainings.
- Issues on body weight and composition (like ideal fat and muscle levels) are more easily resolved.
- Aside from avoiding injuries, proper nutrition can also provide athletes with peace of mind, helping them to focus more on their training.
How does Aro divide her time and attention among her long list of clients? “I take it day by day. In a day, I see who needs my attention the most. My clients understand my situation and they know that I’m servicing others. I am very grateful because they see the value of nutrition. That’s why, I do my best in giving all of them equal services.”
Aro proudly holding up the national flag at the Tokyo Olympics
Gaining fulfillment from sports nutrition
Aro has been a sports nutritionist for nearly two decades, and she admitted that in the past, it had been a struggle to prove her profession’s worth. “Because of Hidilyn’s success, sports nutrition was highlighted. Prior to the Olympics, a lot of people have already opened their eyes to the importance of sports nutrition, but with Hidilyn, it was magnified. I think athletes now will be more open to it—even those who fund sports science programs for our athletes’ improvement.”
Though Hidilyn’s victory was also a win for Aro’s profession, she chooses to view it as the whole country’s triumph. “I’m really happy because we made history. It’s our first time to experience this. But I prefer not to stay in that mindset of success. I always move forward after winning. I am always looking forward to what’s next.”