Sweat, blood and tears: stories Vietnamese SEA Games athletes tell

By Dang Khoa   December 10, 2019 | 05:29 pm PT
Behind the inspirational achievement of winning gold for Vietnam at the SEA Games are inspiring stories of women overcoming some very tough odds.

Only two months to practice

Behind the medals: after the spotlight stories of Vietnams elite athletes in SEA Games

Nguyen Thi Cam Nhi (C) gets emotional after winning of the arnis women's welterweight contest at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines, December 1, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Nguyen Thi Cam Nhi defeated Cambodia's Bo Chanthy to win a gold medal in the arnis women's welterweight division on December 1, the first day of the 30th SEA Games.

Her achievement was remarkable because she was a pencak silat martial artist and had never practiced arnis, a Filipino martial art, before.

"I haven't competed in SEA Games before. I specialize in pencak silat (Indonesian martial art) and this was my first time competing in arnis," she said.

The 22-year-old athlete won a silver medal in pencak silat tanding for women in the 65kg class at the Asian Games 2018, but could not compete at the SEA Games in the same discipline because her weight class was not included in this year's event.

"As a martial artist, I have the advantage of physical strength when switching to a new discipline, which was quite difficult to get used to. Pencak silat uses arm and leg movements while arnis uses a weapon."

"It might be a shock to some people that I only practiced this sport for two months."

She said that she still prefers pencak silat over arnis.

"Earning a gold medal in arnis is unexpected. If I am able to attend the SEA Games in the future, I'd like to win a gold medal in pencak silat."

Her success despite the very short preparation period was possible because of her team's strong support, Nhi believes.

"I think a part of the success comes from the coaching staff and the teammates cheering, supporting and encouraging each other. They were always nearby to help me improve my performance."

The gold medalist is still thirsting for revenge against Indonesia's Kamelia Pipiet, who defeated Nhi at ASIAD 2018.

"If I have the opportunity to compete at the next SEA Games in Vietnam, I want to fight my Indonesian rival and get my revenge," she said.

A long walk by a motorbike taxi driver

Pham Thi Thu Trang distances herself from other rivals and finishes first place in the womens 10,000 m race walk on December 8, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quang Huy.

Pham Thi Thu Trang is well ahead of other rivals as she wins the women's 10,000 m walking race on December 8, 2019, in the Philippines. Photo by VnExpress/Quang Huy.

Pham Thi Thu Trang, 21, is part of a poor family living on the outskirts of Hanoi. She has had to take up all kinds of manual jobs to support herself as well as her family, even as she worked hard to pursue her athletic passion.

A substitute runner who only made it to the national team two months ago, Trang prevailed against other tough opponents to complete her walking race in 52:59.45 seconds to win a gold in her first ever SEA Games.

"Since my family is poor, I had to work as a motorbike taxi driver for two hours after my training sessions and sometimes work as a kitchen help on the side," she said with a smile on her face.

Worried that their daughter had chosen to pursue a challenging athletic career with an uncertain future, her parents kept urging her to be a farmer like them, to have a stable life.

"Each month, I was given an allowance of VND8 million ($344). I did not have much left after subtracting all the living expenses."

The gold medal meant even more for Trang because she surpassed Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuc, a key runner of the national team who also had more experience, participating in previous SEA Games editions.

"I did not expect to win a gold medal since this is my first time competing. All I knew was to give it my all."

Trang said she wants to celebrate her victory with her family.

"My parents are waiting for me to head back home so we can celebrate this. I am very happy. I just wish that I will no longer need to be a motorbike taxi driver, so I can dedicate more time to the sport I love."

Trained in secret against parents’ wishes

Hoang Thi Duyen continues to cry after receiving the gold medal in womens 59 kg weightlifting on December 3, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Weightlifter Hoang Thi Duyen is in tears after receiving the gold medal in the women's 59 kg category on December 3, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Dong.

Weightlifter Hoang Thi Duyen had to overcome many obstacles, including strong objections from her family, before she went on to win a gold medal in the women's 59 kg category on December 3.

"At first, my parents not only did not agree, but also banned me from weightlifting because they worried that pursuing this sport would not benefit me in the long run. Instead, my family wanted me to pursue a career in education since it would be a more stable job than playing sports," she said.

Duyen has been keen on weightlifting since 2008, when she was admitted to the Lao Cai Gymnasium and Gymnastics Center. To escape the family's prohibition, the 23-year-old athlete from the Giay ethnic minority group lied often, saying she was going to school, but heading for practice instead.

Later on, Duyen had to ask her coach to have a talk with her family, and she herself tried hard to achieve good results to prove her abilities to her parents.

"I trained hard to achieve good results in the national competition to show my parents what their girl is capable of. Slowly, they understood, agreed and then turned to support me wholeheartedly."

Putting on 14 kg for a chance to get a medal

Tran Thi Thanh Thuy holds up her gold medal after winning the womens kurash over 70 kg on December 2. Photo by VnExpress/Quang Huy.

Tran Thi Thanh Thuy holds up her gold medal after winning the women's kurash wrestling contest in the over 70 kg category on December 2, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Quang Huy.

Wrestler Tran Thi Thanh Thuy cares more about clinching medals than her looks.

Before she grappled her Indonesia opponent to grab a gold medal in the women's kurash competition on December 2, the 23-year-old had to put on 14 kg in order to compete in the 70 kg plus discipline.

She weighed 77 kg in May, but increased this to 94 kg for the competition since it would help her gain more power to bring home a medal.

"Having more weight, even just a few kilograms, can give you a greater advantage when competing in combat sport. So I decided to gain a lot of weight to boost my chance of winning. This is my personal choice. Although I do not regret it, I still worry about my weight a bit.. I am still a woman after all," she said.

"Please don't include my weight when you write the article," Thuy joked as she talked to Vietnamese reporters after her victory.

She also took the opportunity to talk about the difficulties in repeatedly gaining and losing weight for different tournaments. Thuy won a gold medal in the women's over 87 kg in the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. After that, she had to drop her weight down to compete in the 78 kg discipline in the 2018 Asian Games.

"The weight loss program afterwards was a nightmare. Sometimes, I cried while running to lose weight."

Thuy said her parents were used to her weight fluctuations now.

"When I called my parents to tell them I won a SEA Games gold medal, my parents asked: 'So is it time for you to become slimmer?'"

But the wrestler from Hanoi said she was willing to make all the sacrifices so that "I can add more gold for Vietnam."

Shedding blood

Chuong Thi Kieu still carefully observes the match the match while being treated on the side line. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa.

Chuong Thi Kieu continues to focus on the match as she is treated on the sidelines at the referee’s orders in the SEA Games' women final, December 8, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa.

Vietnamese women's midfielder Chuong Thi Kieu headed back out to the field even though the bandage on her leg was soaked with blood. She could not bear to be away from her teammates as they fought tooth and nail to help Vietnam bring home the women's football gold medal.

The Vietnam women's national football team put on a wonderful display of courage, strength and fighting spirit to defeat tough opponents Thailand by a goal in extra time last Sunday.

A big patch of skin was torn from the back of Kieu's left thigh when she tried to block a Thai player. She kept playing until the referee found out and asked her to leave the field to get treated.

She was impatient as the medical staff tended to her. She asked them to quickly put a bandage over her wound and rushed back to the field.

"I felt the burn and pain when sweat dripped over the bruise. But I could not stand on the side and rest while my teammates were fighting hard on the field. I told myself I have to go back and add fuel to the team spirit," she said.

When the referee blew the whistle to end the match after more than two hours, captain Huynh Nhu could not even join the celebration because of cramps, and had to be piggybacked out by one of the team's assistant coaches.

"I could barely walk anymore since both my leg muscles were tensed up. I had to apply pain killers before I could walk up to receive the gold medal," the captain said.

Midfielder Tran Thi Hong Nhung was hospitalized after the game.

She was exhausted and had to be admitted to the emergency room. But she became stable soon after that.

Their indomitable spirit helped Vietnam earn the sixth women's football gold medal at the SEA Games and the second one in a row.

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