Trials and tribulations of athletics star

By Thanh Duong   March 23, 2021 | 05:02 am PT
Trials and tribulations of athletics star
Nguyen Thi Oanh at SEA Games 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Duong.
Nguyen Thi Oanh is the golden girl of Vietnamese track, and the struggles she had to go through only serve to burnish her lofty credentials.

Oanh was born in the northern province of Bac Giang, which has produced a number of famous athletes and badminton players.

Her passion for athletics began when she was just nine after watching an athletics event for the first time. She was mesmerized by her elder sister running on the track.

She says: "I didn't have any particular interest back then. But the admiration people had for my sister made me want to be like her someday."

Her journey began that day.

At school teachers helped her take part in district-level athletics competitions, where she won her first medals. She quickly showed great potential and was stronger and faster than her rivals despite her smaller size.

Scouts in Bac Giang soon spotted Oanh's talent, but since she was just 1.5 m tall and 40 kg, she almost did not get chosen.

When she was 15, she went to the Bac Giang School of Physical Education and Sports for Gifted Students to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete.

"It took me half a month to adjust and get used to the new life. I cried many times because of homesickness."

She gradually developed physically and gained competition experience. In 2011, in the national youth championships, she won a bronze medal in the 3,000 m steeplechase and discovered that was the event in which her strength lay.

In January next year, she was called up to the national youth team.

In 2013 she broke the senior national record in the 3000 m steeplechase in the youth championships with a time of 10 minutes and 24 seconds.

One year later, Oanh took it to the next level with a gold medal in the 2014 Asian Junior Athletics Championships. But at the end of that year, just as her career seemed set to bloom, she came down with a serious health problem and disappeared from the scene.

"It was a day in December 2014. Out of nowhere, there were sudden swellings on my face. People said it was just an allergy, but I felt insecure and went to the doctor. I was diagnosed with acute nephritic syndrome."

For athletes, kidney and heart diseases can mean the end of their careers.

"The first thing that came to my mind was to retire, but that was hard to accept. I realized my condition was not severe and was curable. I always think about the hardship I went through during that period of time."

Nevertheless, for nearly a year her athletics career ground to a halt. For an athlete, finding peak form again after a long hiatus is never easy, so she scrupulously followed the recovery plan.

Three years later, at the 2017 SEA Games, the 3,000 m steeplechase, Oanh’s event, was canceled since there were not enough contestants and she moved to the 1,500 m.

The shorter distance favors tall and speedy runners, which meant she was at a slight disadvantage. Within a short time, Oanh had to change her training to focus on improving her speed. Her efforts paid off handsomely as she won the gold medal.

Tran Van Sy, Oanh’s coach in the national team, says she knows her body really well and can adapt to any training regime she is given, one reason why she returned to the top after coming back from the illness.

At SEA Games 30, she won gold medals in the 1,500 m, 5,000 m and 3,000 m steeplechase.

She was named Vietnam's athlete of the year in 2019.

She says: "I always have the will and drive to move forward. I think no matter what you do in life, you have to find positivity during bad times. I never have the intention of stopping, whether in life or on the track."

The 26-year-old also likes to take part in domestic marathons.

"The atmosphere that people created in the marathon events helps relieve my stress from high-intensity competitions."

Oanh finished first in the 21 km races at the 2020 VnExpress Marathon Quy Nhon and VnExpress Marathon Hanoi Midnight.

She says she did not run the full marathon (42 km) because it is too long and she needs to preserve her energy for other events.

In marathons, people often joke that she should be handed the trophy before the run because she can never be beaten.

Oanh is happy to meet people who share her passion for running. They in turn look up to her because of her achievements and humble personality.

As a professional athlete, Oanh spends most days training. Now, with the Covid-19 pandemic causing all international tournaments to be postponed, she has some time to do what she wants, which is improving her English, so that she can communicate with foreign athletes and fans.

She has already charted out post-retirement plans: becoming a coach.

In her hometown, Oanh is a role model for many young athletes and she hopes to pass the torch of passion to them so that they can continue to bring shiny medals to Vietnam.

go to top