|In at the deep end: Nguyen Quoc Phi stands on the bridge over the Xeo Ro Canal observing and instructing the local children how to swim every afternoon after school. — Photo courtersy of Nguyen Quoc Phi
Armed with a sports degree and a passion for exercise, Nguyen Quoc Phi made it his mission to get Kien Giang Province kids active and has cultivivated a formidable sports club with a slew of medals demonstrating its members sporting excellence. Luong Thu Huong reports.
Every late afternoon after school, about 15 children in An Minh District in the southern province of Kien Giang gather to do swimming warm-ups. After running for the required distance, they return to the starting point to rest for a while. Then they do the warm-ups again before finally jumping into the Xeo Ro canal to swim.
On the bridge over the canal stands trainer Nguyen Quoc Phi. After Phi counts from one to three, each group of children rushes to line up.
The 34-year-old founder of Hamlet 11A's Sports Club came up with the idea of setting up a club for local children after he returned to his hometown to work.
"Children in rural areas like my hometown are at a disadvantage compared with those in the urban areas, as they lack places to exercise. After taking a course at the Ho Chi Minh City College of Sports in 2003, I decided to use my knowledge to create a club," Phi said.
To encourage the villagers' interest in sports, Phi was an active role model. He woke up early in the morning to jog for a long distance, aiming to show people that exercising would benefit their health.
"They used to cast strange looks at me, as if I was abnormal. Gradually, the image of a young man in sports clothes running around the district became familiar to the local people," he said. "Then I started to encourage children near my house to join me. After three months, 20 children participated. At five every morning, we woke up to jog."
In 2005, Phi proposed the idea of establishing a club for local children interested in running and swimming, which was soon approved by the Dong Hung B Commune authority in An Minh District.
But not all went smoothly during its first days. "There was a lot of confusion over administrative procedures, especially expenses. Due to financial difficulties, there are no proper material facilities, and the children only run barefoot or in sandals," Phi said.
The number of the club members keeps fluctuating, but new members always take the place of those who drop out and Phi counts at least 15 regular members. During training for competitions, this number can reach as high as 40.
Phan Hai Trieu, the general director of the district's centre of culture and sport, said the club had "significantly encouraged the sports movement" in the area.
"My children learned from Phi how to train for good health. My wife and I feel very happy that they know how to swim, and can even save others from drowning, which makes us feel safe when we have to go on business," said Nguyen Thanh Hung, a Hamlet 11A resident, whose five children trained under Phi and have won many provincial and regional sporting contests.
Each member used to contribute VND2,000 (10 US cents) for funding. But after the club won several local sporting competitions, the prize money was sufficient.
Nguyen Thi Phao, an official of An Minh Children's House and the secretary of the local youth branch, has been by Phi's side since the club started, training the children and accompanying them to competitions.
"I remember the first time we took the children to participate in Kien Giang's sporting competition," she recalled.
"Seeing our team with bare heads and feet, eating a small breakfast of sweet potatoes, everyone thought that we were just competing for fun, not to win."
After a few months of enthusiastic training, however, the club changed that impression. Members came away from the 2005 Hon Dat Mountain-Climbing Contest with two gold, two silver and three bronze medals.
In the eight years since, Phi's club has kept improving and developing. It has co-operated with the provincial sport school to teach athletics classes to 20 students, including one who went on to complete a master's degree in sport, one who went to HCM City College of Sports and two who are currently studying sport at Can Tho University.
As of June, Phi's club has participated in 20 provincial competitions, winning 95 gold, 71 silver and 64 bronze medals, as well as 13 regional and national events, where the club earned one gold medal, two silvers and one bronze.
Early this year, Phi was promoted to vice director of the centre of culture and sport of the district. But he still focuses more on helping others than moving up the career ladder. His current goal: eradicating "swimming blindness" among local children. — VNS