by Khieu Thanh Ha
I believe in fortune and I also have faith in myself.I dare to set my own destiny and achieve my lifetime ambition," says Tran Le Quoc Toan, the only Vietnamese weightlifter to qualify for this summer's London Olympics.
|London bound: Tran Le Quoc Toan celebrates after winning a SEA Games gold medal last November in Indonesia. — VNA/VNS Photo Quang Nhut
The 23-year-old athlete has written his own fairytale, from humble beginners as a stonemason to Southeast Asian (SEA) Games champion and Olympic qualification.
Toan is the oldest of three children in a poor family from Da Nang City, whose father suffered from cancer. The family was forced to live off what their mother made selling soya milk.
His father passed away when Toan was just 16, leaving behind him VND50 million (US$2,300) in unpaid medical bills. His mother had no means to pay back such a large sum, and wanted to die with her husband, but her son turned things around for the family.
Toan had already quit school at the age of 14 and started to work to help his mother feed the family.
Despite his small frame, Toan was strong and worked as a stone workshop in Non Nuoc Village, receiving a salary of VND500,000 ($230) per month.
"It made me happy to go home and give money to my mother so she could buy medicine for my father, hoping that somehow we could save him from the disease," Toan recalled.
His life changed one day while he was at work where he heard that the city's sports department was recruiting weightlifters.
A light flashed through his mind and Toan went home, announcing that he was going to train to be a weightlifter.
Although the boy did not have the physique to be a lifter at the time, being short and weighing only 34kg, he was accepted onto the team.
"At first I didn't want to recruit him, but I changed my mind when I saw his determination and strong thirsty eyes. He's worked incredibly hard to get where he is today," said coach Phan Van Thien.
A new life
To start with, he used to get up at 4am and cycle to the training centre, returning home in the afternoon. It took him five months to be accepted as an official trainee.
"It was not easy for me and it was six months before I was allowed to participate in my first tournament in 2005, where I won a gold medal at the national junior championships in Hai Duong Province," Toan said.
He was still unknown to the sport's elite, but he had already made an impression on the national coaches.
"It would have been a happy homecoming, but my father died at the same time and my happiness was drowned by sorrow."
Standing in front of his father's altar, the young man promised to be the family's breadwinner and take care of his mother and siblings.
"Before every tournament, he prayed to his father and then held me tight, promising to do his best. All of his salary and bonuses were given to me, as he said, to nurture his younger brother and sister," his mother Le Thi Quynh Nga said.
Four years after his first success, Toan made a bang at the National Weightlifting Championships by beating favourite Hoang Anh Tuan in the men's 56kg category. Tuan was the second Vietnamese athlete to win an Olympic medal, taking the silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The 2011 season was a great one for Toan.
In November he pocketed a bronze medal at the World Weightlifting Championships in Paris, France. He lifted 125kg in the snatch event and finished third behind China's Wu Jingbiao and Zhao Chaojun.
Some weeks later, he himself set up a target of a bronze medal at his first SEA Games in Indonesia, but he surpassed all expectations by winning a gold with a total weight of 280kg.
"After the bronze medal at the worlds I was really confident ahead of the Games. I had a successful training course in Bulgaria where I learnt a lot from leading athletes," said Toan.
"The pressure on me for a gold medal was huge but I was encouraged a lot when I thought about my mother, family and coaches, as well as the crowd in the gymnasium."
"After six years of tough training, I could finally enjoy the sweet smell of success. I was a little bit lucky during the competition, but maybe that luck came from all my hard work," said Toan, who originally wanted to be a footballer but couldn't because of his height.
Toan's achievement was not only a turning point in his career, but also in the nation's sporting history because he was the first Vietnamese lifter to win a SEA Games title.
Following his great achievement, Toan climbed to third in the 56kg category in the International Weightlifting Federation rankings.
This year at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in South Korea in April, he won a silver medal and with it a berth at this summer's London Olympics. He is the only Vietnamese lifter to have qualified for sport's biggest competition.
"The Olympics will be tough but I still want to test my ability there. I will have to iron out any weaknesses and play to my strengths to get a good result in London," Toan said.
To win a medal, he will probably have to lift up to 290kg. At the moment, his result is ranging around 279-287kg.
Toan is training in Bulgaria again before he heads to France for his final preparations, and is confident he has enough time to make up the difference.
His main opponents will be from China, Azerbaijan, North Korea and Indonesia. His Chinese rivals in particular will be hard to beat, with seven representatives in the 56kg category all capable of winning gold.
The top three are two-time world champion Wu Jingbao who has lifted 292kg, defending Olympic champion Long Qingquan who has lifted the same weight, and world silver medallist Zhao Chaojun on 284kg.
Of the 14 Vietnamese athletes who will be competing in London, Toan has the best chance of bringing home a medal, according to Nguyen Hong Minh, former head of the Elite Sports Department. — VNS