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Lily Pecante-Garcia: The Filipino Postmaster Who Became Asia's Strongest Woman

This is the story of how a highly respected postmaster became Asia's strongest woman.
IMAGE LILY PECANTE-GARCIA
ILLUSTRATOR WARREN ESPEJO
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Erlina “Lily” Pecante-Garcia once held the title as Asia’s strongest woman, breaking several Asian records during her over two-decade career as a powerlifter. 

“I am now living here in Australia for nearly six years now. I left the Philippines in 2015 but I’ve been back and forth from the Philippines to Australia six to seven times because I married here,” Lily tells Esquire Philippines.

But while she held the title as Asia’s strongest woman, she was also a highly respected postmaster at the Philippine Central Post Office in Manila. 

Lily Pecante-Garcia in Front of the Philippine Central Post Office in 2001

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

“I retired from the Post Office on paper officially on December 31, 2015. I was a postmaster in Manila.”

Pecante-Garcia was a full-time athlete and a full-time postmaster at the height of her powerlifting career. In 1986, she became Postmaster I. At the time, she was also studying law while working at the post office. She eventually rose to the rank of Postmaster VII and served for 30 years at the Philippine Central Post Office. 

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Lily Pecante-Garcia Today

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia .

“I started powerlifting when I was 22, but my first competition was in 1987 when I was 23. I earned the title of the strongest woman in the Philippines during that competition. I competed in the 60-kilogram division.”

Among the records she holds in powerlifting are 227.5 kilograms for Squat, 132.5 kilograms for Bench Press, and 220 kilograms for Deadlift. 

“My World Masters record is 220 kilograms during the World Games in Taiwan 2009,” says Lily.  

How a Mischief Led to Lily’s Powerlifting

Lily had absolutely no plans of becoming a powerlifter. She was a dedicated public servant and law student at the time she found that unexpected passion. 

“I was studying in the college of law, and the fashion during that time was aerobics. So syempre gusto mo, sexy-sexy. Na-bored ako sa aerobics, ang corny.

Lily Pecante-Garcia Powerlifting in 1995 

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Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

I needed something different, so nagpunta ako sa area ng mga boys, at nakita ko yung isang guy, he was lifting weights that were 60 pounds lang. Nang-asar ako, sabi ko sa kanya, ‘Parang ang gaan naman niyan, parang hirap ka.’” 

Offended, the guy scoffed at her and said, ‘Ikaw nga!’

So Lily replied, “O sige!” 

She lifted the same weights with ease. 

Little did she know that moment would change her life forever: A powerlifting coach witnessed her and immediately ran toward her.  

The coach asked her, “Lily, can you do this?” and he pointed to 100 pounds of weight. 

“Okay!” replied Lily casually. 

Ang gaan!” she complained. 

Shocked, the coach added more weights until Lily was already carrying 150. 

Lily Pecante-Garcia in Canada in 2009 During the Qualifying Event for the 2009 World Games in Taiwan

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

“Okay, enough!” said the coach. “Tinignan ko lang anong maximum weight mo para sa training mo.”

“Training?!” Lily was surprised and had no intention of training with this powerlifting coach. She was only bored and had no time for training because she was also attending law school at the Jose Rizal College.  

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Ayoko mag training, wala akong pera!” said Lily. 

The coach insisted, “No, no! I will talk to the gym owner so you can train for free!”

Oh di syempre, for the sake of art, nagpunta-punta ako sa gym kahit wala naman akong alam sa powerlifting talaga.” 

And that was the start of Lily Pecante-Garcia’s path to becoming the strongest woman in the Philippines. 

Philippines’ Strongest Woman

A year later, Lily was competing in 1987 in a powerlifting tournament. 

“So, nang nag-compete ako noong 1987, nagulat ako na ako na pala iyong pinakamalakas doon!” 

One by one, Lily broke the powerlifting records long held by the Philippine Navy, Philippine Army and other groups.  

Syempre mga masculado mga iyon. Na-break ko mga records nila. I was all over the newspapers: ‘Philippines’ Strongest Woman.’

The Philippines and Asia's Strongest Woman

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.
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Nakakapikon! Someone Broke My Record by 500 Grams’ 

Lily talks about the sacrifices she had to give up just to continue her work as a postmaster and a full-time athlete. 

Mahirap gawin iyon lahat nang sabay-sabay. For example, your love life, your career, and your powerlifting career.”

“In 1989, I gave birth to my son—pero hindi ako nag-asawa ha!—nag-stop ako sa powerlifting that year. Noong 1992, dumaan lang ako sa competition ng powerlifting pero nag-aral ulit ako noon sa law school. Third year law student ako noon. Tapos, nakita ko, may nag-break ng record ko! 500 grams lang yon! Hindi ba, nakakapikon? Sabi ko, ‘Just you wait. Babalik ako!’ 

And so, Lily set out to work to reclaim her title as the country’s strongest woman.

Nag-stop ako sa law school. Pa-fourth year na ako, nilayasan ko ang law school at nag-compete ulit ako. Within six months, I competed internationally. Nag break ulit ako ng records. Yung 125 kilos record ko, ginawa kong 160 kilos in a short span of time training.  

“And then I was sent to India for the Asian championship. During that time, I placed silver. The following year in 1993, I finally broke the Asian record of 185 kilos in the deadlift.” 

The Struggle of Working While Being a Full-Time Athlete

Unlike many Filipino athletes who represent the Philippines today, Lily had a day job while also being a full-time athlete. It was so difficult for her to juggle work and sport, considering her high position in the Post Office. She worked hard during the day and trained harder at night every day for many years.  

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Ako kasi, postmaster ako. As postmaster, you’re handling hundreds of people under you, tapos after your work, pupunta ka sa training mo—it’s blood, sweat, and tears! Akala nila nag-gold ka ganoon lang iyon, but oh my god—hindi nila alam yung hirap mo, yung pagbubuhat mo nang sobra-sobra.” 

After winning medals for the country, Lily wakes up early the next day to work again on her regular job.  

Lily in 2020

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

Kailangan mong gumising nang maaga dahil may work ka! Ikaw ang responsible sa mga taong iyon, 200, 300, 500 people, ikaw yon. Kung anong mali ginawa nila, ikaw may kasalanan kung bakit.”

But now that she’s retired from both professions, she still misses the old days a lot.  

Pero… na-miss ko ang mga cartero ng Manila, Quezon City, at Makati! I was the first lady postmaster to be assigned at the Manila Central post Office, I reached the rank of Postmaster VII. I miss Manila.”

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At 46, Lily Was Still Breaking World Records

Today, Lily is 57. But when she was 46, she had so much power left in her, she still competed and broke several world records in World Open powerlifting competitions.

“The last time I competed was in the 2009 World Open in India,  meaning wala siyang category, so mga kabataan na malalakas ang kalaban mo. In India World Open 2001, naka third place ako overall. Ako pinakamatanda doon! Lahat sila mga bata pa.”

Lily recounted how she snatched several titles and broke records in her competitions abroad. 

“Usually in the World Open, may isa lang ako nakukuha like isa lang gold ko like in the deadlift. My first World Open gold was in 2001 in the Czech Republic, I competed in the 67.5 kilos. I also won gold in the deadlift in which I lifted 212.5 kilos, and during that time, that was the Asian record. But in total, I placed fourth. I was 37 years old!

Lily Pecante-Garcia Powerlifting in 2009

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.
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Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.
Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

“In 2009, I was 46 when I was competing anywhere from World Open to World Masters Powerlifting Championships. In total, I broke six world records. Sa World Masters kasi, ako talaga ang champion. I was also the first Filipino who qualified for the World Games. So far, wala pang sumunod sa akin.”

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All these achievements came at a cost. 

She talked about sacrificing immensely for her passion for powerlifting. 

“For me, ang naisakripisyo ko, wala akong boyfriend nang 25 years! Bago ko na-meet yung asawa ko dito.”

But she says that things are different these days. “Right now, pati yung sakripisyo mo sa work, kailangan mamimili ka talaga.”

There were other things that she also took care of as an athlete, including financing her training and expenses abroad, and organizing the logistics of her participation in competitions. 

“First of all, you needed to do everything yourself, you had to organize everything, of course with the help of your coaches and teammates. Buti na lang, ang mga coaches ko, sina Eddie Torres and Ramon Debuque, they were very helpful.  

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.

Sa funding, I needed to write to all the politicians for sponsorship. Ambabait naman nila, binibigyan nila ako. Tapos, noong nakita na ng Post Office na nagiging World Champion na ako, they started to help me.” 

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While competing abroad, Lily was not spared from work. She was tasked to observe and tour the foreign country’s mail operations. 

“When I went to the Czech Republic, I still had to do my responsibilities as a postmaster, I still had to do my observation and monitoring tours of the mail operations in that country. So I needed to go to the Philippine Embassy, and they provided me with a translator. The same thing happened when I competed in Austria. Well-coordinated naman.” 

‘Umiyak ako noong makita kong itinataas ang bandila ng Pilipinas.’ 

Among all her experiences from all her competitions abroad, there was always one moment that left a profound memory for Lily.

 “When it was the first time na itinataas ang bandila natin, at umiiyak ka talaga. Alam mo ba yung ganoong feeling?” Lily was describing the time she became World Champion in powerlifting.  

An ineffable feeling of joy and pride swelled inside Lily as she stood beside athletes from wealthier countries.

Ang katabi ko, U.S., nasa baba sila. Tapos Canada, Britain.” 

From her podium finish, she was looking down on these countries, disbelief running through her mind as the Philippines bested these powers, with the Philippine flag sailing above theirs. 

Lily was on top of the world.

All of that emotion came rushing back to her when she saw Hidilyn Diaz win the Philippines’ first-ever gold medal in the Olympics in Tokyo. 

Kaya nga noong nakita ko si Hidilyn, naiyak ako, ngayon nga naiiyak ako eh!”

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“I’m so happy for her! Nakakatuwa di ba? Talagang proud na proud ako talaga. May mga taong tumatawag sa akin, telling me, ‘Ikaw nakikita namin sa kanya!’”

Lily's Advice for Aspiring Athletes

 While athletes can only do so much on their own, Lily says the government should also support them from a young age.  

“Kasi dapat sa simula pa lang, doon na sila magsisimula (mag-suporta sa mga atleta). Dapat doon pa lang sa early stage from grade school or high school.”

She also has a piece of advice for athletes who aspire to be world champions someday.

“Basta keep on dreaming, at yung passion mo talaga ay nandoon. Hindi puwedeng ibang tao ang magsasabi sayo, nasa sarili mo lang talaga kung anong gusto mong gawin sa buhay at kung anong gusto mong maabot. You need to set your goals. You have to persevere, marami kang isa-sacrifice!”

Photo by Lily Pecante-Garcia.
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