How a Fil-Am physical therapist guided Olympic gold medalist Hidilyn Diaz and boosted her confidence

Zeena Hernandez | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Zeena Hernandez, a New York-based Filipino American physical therapist became viral in 2019 when she and her wife Lisa Yang lifted a 253-pound barbell together after exchanging vows on their wedding day.

In the local community recently, she became known when Olympic golden girl Hidilyn Diaz made a shoutout and thanked her for her guidance and boosting her confidence en route to her historic clinching of the elusive Olympic gold medal.

The exterior of Good Reps, a sports physical therapy clinic in Brooklyn. | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

The 29-year old Hernandez runs Good Reps, a sports physical therapy clinic in Brooklyn. She established her first clinic in 2019 inside the CrossFit gym in Prospect Heights but was forced to close for three months last year when the pandemic happened.

“I think it was the perfect opportunity when it presented itself. Lakas ng loob lang talaga. Iba pag may overhead ka na malaki. and it’s your own place, so, sobrang nakakatakot,” she told the Asian Journal. “But at the same time, you know, fortune favors the bold so ito na, if I fail, I’ll fail hard, I’ll fail early. I guess I had to always go back to my vision which was to run a physical therapy practice that understood athletes, that gave enough time for athletes, and had a specialization.”

It took a lot of effort, maybe even a dose of chutzpah, for the shy and soft spoken doctor to achieve what she has right now.

Hernandez moved to the US in 2013 after finishing her studies in Iloilo City. She took the PT boards and continued her studies, finishing a doctorate in Physical Therapy from Utica College in New York.

As a new immigrant, she yearned for that sense of community, something that she found in the gym, specifically CrossFit. She got injured one time and thus began her search for physical therapists to help her get back into weightlifting, maybe even just picking up a barbell.

“At that time it was hard because if like let’s say I say ‘a snatch’ or ‘a clean and jerk’, some physical therapists don’t know what that is,” she shared.

That sparked her interest in specializing in sports, particularly in helping weight lifters and CrossFitters “because I think telling people to rest is not enough specifically if we want people to get back into participating in sports and especially if we want people to be performing.”

From there, she started to develop her orthopedic skills and really leaning towards catering to barbell athletes and runners, mainly because those were the things she herself enjoyed.

Armed with enough confidence, she recalls sending emails and knocking on the doors of gyms to ask if they have openings for physical therapists. She knew her strengths and she highlighted them.

“I’m also a weightlifter and I specialize in treating weight lifters because I do know the sport, you know, the demands of the sport, and obviously I specialize in injury, not only injury prevention, but also injury mitigation,” she’d tell them.

Then the pandemic happened and everything went on a tailspin. The gym closed for three months and was not fully operational until the city began to reopen.

She persevered despite losing about 80 percent of her clients by posting through her social media accounts and as the city slowly reopened, the business started to pick up. By the end of last year, the business grew to the point that she could no longer handle additional clients.

With the gym location limiting her to have just one PT, she knew that in order to grow, she had to get a more spacious location. They scouted neighborhoods in Brooklyn until they came across a vacant space that was formerly a yoga studio.

Earlier this year, they opened the Prospect Heights location of Good Reps still with a strong belief that the key to facilitating recovery from an injury is establishing a solid collaboration between therapist and client.

Lifters for Lifters

Zeena and her wife Lisa Yang, both proud of the achievements of Hidilyn and her team | AJPress photo by Momar G. Visaya

Zeena and Lisa met Hidilyn Diaz in 2018. She reached out to Team HD for help in a project she was planning after she saw videos where kids were training and they were not wearing shoes.

“As someone who weight lifts as well, I know how hard that is. And I’m like okay, ang daming sapatos dito na tinatapon lang ng mga tao after wearing them for six months but it’s still new,” she shared. “Weightlifting shoes are hard to come by and you have to order them in specialty shoe shops. So I was like okay maybe we can collect the shoes for holidays, people can donate them and we’ll clean them, And maybe we can even raise some money.”

They did just that for their first project and reached out to Hidilyn and her coach Julius Naranjo. The four of them called the project “Lifters for Lifters” which is a play on words since the weightlifter shoes are called lifters as well.

They began collecting pre-loved weightlifting and cross-training shoes in good condition for kids and athletes in the Philippines.

“We also raised money, and we were able to buy newer, smaller shoes for the kids that Heidi knew back home. Second year 2019 we tried to do the same thing. We collected shoes and sent [them] over although distribution was more difficult because at that time, Heidi and Julius were doing international but we were lucky enough that they still had that community back home,” Zeena shared.

They reconnected early this year after the Asian Games and scheduled a virtual consultation, something that Zeena focused on as the pandemic went on last year. It is one of the blessings of the pandemic, she says because she never would have thought that she could do virtual consultations before the pandemic, but now it’s just easier to connect with people because of Zoom and other platforms.

“The time difference was tough, it was late there and early morning here but they were able to make it work. They did an evaluation, and she prescribed them specific exercises suited to their specific needs and then just kind of kept up with our communication via Facebook,” she added.

Golden Moment 

Dr. Zeena designs her programs specific to each client, similar to what she suggested to Team HD in order to have the right mindset along with a perfectly conditioned body. | AJPress Photos by Momar G. Visaya

Hernandez found weightlifting late in life when she moved to the United States. She saw weightlifting as a beautiful sport, one where she found a sense of community.

Even though it is an individual sport, it takes a team, you have your coach, and you’re lifting around with your peers, she says.

She and Lisa followed the Olympics religiously.

“I set my alarm specifically for Heidi because one, number one, Philippines, you know. It’s very rare that we get a chance to do this so it was very, very close to my heart, it’s my favorite sport I love my country. Plus, they’re my friends, and my clients to a certain degree,” she shared.

Zeena was with a client and it was Lisa who was giving her a blow by blow account.

Then Lisa screamed ‘We won!’

Zeena cried buckets.

“It was a monumental task!” she explained. “If you’re a fan of weightlifting, you know that it’s very, very hard to beat China and the athlete that Heidi was going against, you know, has never lost. Always won the gold. So I think it’s like, the task that they had to finish was grabe. Grabe talaga, nakakaiyak!” she said.

That golden moment was extremely special for her and the victory means a lot to her.

“It means a lot to me personally as a Filipina. As someone who is abroad, who wants to raise the flag of the Philippines, I’m so proud. It means, as a weightlifter, even more, I’m so proud of us,” she said, adding that she had that extra spring in her step as she walked around the gym with pride. “We won gold. First gold was one won by a Filipina, it’s amazing!”

Momar G. Visaya

Momar G. Visaya is the Executive Editor of the Asian Journal. You can reach him at momar.visaya@asianjournalinc.com.

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