Disabled athletes share their stories, telling how sports have changed their lives for the best and how they are preparing for the upcoming games.
Every morning at 6:30, athlete Pham Hong Thuc, 46, comes to Hang Day Stadium in Hanoi’s Dong Da District to train. Along with hundreds of other athletes with physical disabilities, Thuc has been practicing every day, come rain, shine or even a pandemic, to prepare for Vietnam National Para-Games slated for November.
“In 2002, we fervently watched news and stories about SEA Games (Southeast Asian Games) hosted in Vietnam. When my dad saw there was a prize for the disabled, he took me to apply for the wheelchair racing team. I have since been attached to the sport. For the first time in my life after losing my legs in a train accident during 1989 I learned I could become an athlete.”
These days, apart from being an athlete, Thuc and his wife, also an athlete, run a workshop making brooms to create jobs for other people with disabilities.
Ta Van Duy, 23, readies to sprint. Duy used to be part of the swimming team, but switched to athletics three years ago.
“There is too much chlorine in the pool water, which causes pain in my ears, so I decided to find new opportunities and switch. Albinism makes me sensitive to sunlight, or ultraviolet rays, so I often have to wear sunglasses and a hat.”
Duy works at a spa, serving mainly foreigners, which has been shut since the onset of Covid-19. Vietnam has yet to allow foreign tourists to return to the country.
Tran Nguyen Thai, 54, an athletics coach, was the first Vietnamese to break the 50-meter world breaststroke record in 2001. In 2005, she switched discipline because the pool water caused her dermatitis. Three years later, she graduated with a college coaching degree. In 2019, she became the first and only disabled athletics coach in Hanoi.
“I lost my right hand after getting burnt at two months of age. I used to suffer discrimination and was even kicked out of class. Sports have helped me integrate into the community. Socializing with people like you helps you gain self-confidence, and see the world with greater perspective,” she said.
Across from Hang Day Stadium is a sports training and competition center on Trinh Hoai Duc Street, where swimmer Nguyen Van Thanh, 26, comes to practice every week. For the past eight years, Thanh has been a regular visitor to the center. Living in Vinh Phuc Province, he takes the bus all the way to neighboring Hanoi to train.
Congenital retinal chromatic degeneration makes Thanh unable to see things clearly.
“In the past, I worked at a blind massage facility and then a friend introduced me to a disabled swimming team after learning about my skills. When I’m on land, everything’s just a fuzzy silhouette, but under water, I can feel everything confidently,” Thanh maintained.
The ping pong room at Ba Dinh Sports Center is usually occupied by Nguyen Thi Xiem, 35, and other members of her team. Xiem suffered paraplegia caused by polio at four and has had to use a wheelchair ever since.
In 2006, via a friend, she joined a ping pong team for the disabled. At first, she struggled with the physical exertion, her arms hurting to the point she “could not even hold a bowl of rice to eat.” But two years later, she managed to compete professionally and “has never missed any medals” at national tournament since.
“Ping pong to me is not just a passion but a job that offers me financial stability and new experiences. In the past, I thought I would spend the rest of my life in one place, working as a tailor. But then ping pong came to me, giving me the opportunity to exercise and travel to other localities and countries, making my life way more interesting,” shared Xiem, now a mother of two.
Below the ping pong room, badminton player Hoang Manh Giang, 38, has just finished training.
Giang used to be a wheelchair racer but turned to badminton eight years ago. After all those years, he has bagged many medals at both local and international tournaments, recently making it to the quarterfinal of 2019 Para-Badminton World Championships in Switzerland.
“Before every competition, I usually practice much harder and only rest and have my muscles stretched closer to the event. Once the tournament is done, I always head home quickly to reunite with my wife and kids,” he said.
A native from northern port city Hai Phong, 120 km (74 miles) from Hanoi, he currently rents an apartment in the capital to facilitate training.
In a room on the second floor of Khuc Hao sports center in Ba Dinh District, Trinh Huu Dat, 21, has just rearranged the chessboard after a game with his teammate. A resident of Phu Tho Province that neighbors Hanoi, Dat has spent the past two years traveling two hours a day from home to the center to train, an activity that has been part of his life for the past two years.
Dat could not see things clearly and yet refused to follow his older sister to work full time at a blind massage facility.
“Last year, I got a bronze medal at the national games and the first thing I did was call my family to spread the news. That was my first ever medal,” he said.
Nguyen Thi Minh Chau, 21, in the weightlifting room of the Khuc Hao sports center.
Chau is the youngest of the weightlifting team. Losing her right leg to a motorbike accident in 2013, she had to drop out of school as the aftershock impacted her neural functions. For years, she was depressed and had an inferiority complex. Her life changed in 2016 when she chose to become an athlete.
“I never thought I would become an athlete since I was never confident in public. But when I’m here with others like me, I feel more comfortable and open.”
Chau joined the athletics team at first but two years later decided to try weightlifting.
The most important target in her life right now is to bag a medal at the coming competition and then find a job to earn a living so “my parent could be at ease.”
Practicing next to Chau is Nguyen Quang Phuc, 39, who has been a weightlifter for 17 years.
Paralyzed due to illness as a child, Phuc said he “could never image what my future would look like” before sports entered his life. In 2003, when he was still a sophomore at the National Economics University in Hanoi, Phuc watched TV and saw disabled athletes compete.
“At that moment I immediately decided I want to be like them. I chose weightlifting simply because I thought it suited me and since then, it has become a part of my life.”
As planned, the 2020 Vietnam Para-Games will see athletes first compete in badminton, weightlifting, ping pong, chess, Boccia, and Judo. The tournament was originally slated for August but due to the second Covid-19 wave in Vietnam, had been postponed. Track and field events as well as swimming will commence in November in Ho Chi Minh City.