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Champion triumphs over disability burden

Update: December, 22/2013 - 15:50

Perseverance: Nguyen Thi Hong has excelled in powerlifting despite her disability. — VNA/VNS Photo Ngoc Truong

by Thanh Ha

Her poor living conditions do not make her sad, and she has refused to allow her paralysis from stopping her from becoming a success.

Most people do not recognise Nguyen Thi Hong as she pushes herself down the street selling lottery tickets. Only some of them are aware that Hong is a powerlifter who has won many titles and finished fourth at the London Paralympics last year.

Born like any other normal baby in the central province of Quang Tri's Hai Lang District, Hong shouldered her poor parents' hopes of a brighter future.

But at the age of four, she was struck down by polio and lost the use of both of her legs.

"Having grown up in the land of many war heroes, I stayed strong. My motto was: 'Never give up'," said Hong.

Hong did not have the chance to go to school because her family were poor and her disability made it difficult for her to travel around.

Over time, Hong gradually became accustomed to her difficulties.

"I realised that there are millions of people around the world who are living fulfilling lives, so why shouldn't I?" Hong said.

At the age of 15, Hong started out by herself running a street tea stall, despite her parents' protests.

"I said to them: 'Just because I can't use my legs, it does not mean that I am disabled. I can do everything that other people do'."

She managed to make a living from the stall, and little by little, she started to save. Three years later, Hong decided to go back to school and started as a first-grade student aged 18.

"At first the kids teased me, and I felt ashamed. Sometime I bust into tears. However, I wanted to prove to people that I was not a redundant citizen, so I tried to focus on my studies. It took me only a few months to learn how to read and write fluently again," Hong said.

Turning point

"In the same year, a local official asked me to take part in a wheelchair race organised by the district. He registered my name although I had not agreed, and I was forced to take part in the tournament," recalled Hong.

"It turned out to be a nice surprise because I won a gold medal and was selected to participate in a provincial competition a month later," she said, adding that she had one again proved that she could be as successful as able-bodied people.

The victory inspired Hong to compete at the National Sports Games for People with Disabilities in 2003 in Ha Noi, and she had no difficulty in becoming the national champion in the women's 3,000m event.

That same afternoon, someone suggested that she take part in the powerlifting event as well. Hong lifted 45kg and won a silver medal without a single day's training.

Months later Hong was called up to the national powerlifting team to practise for the Southeast Asian ParaGames. Since then she has stuck with the new sport - and a new life.

"I still can't believe it. I'd never trained before but I still won a lot of titles in a short time," Hong said with smile.

A fairytale love

"I never thought about having a family with a husband and kids because of my disability, but then God brought him to me," Hong said about her beloved husband, Nguyen Trong Vu.

When they were still kids, Vu was the only one who visited Hong, and he describes her as having a beautiful and charming soul.

He still has no idea of exactly when he fell in love with her.

"When I told Hong that I loved her, she rejected my advances, but it was fate. We belong to each other," said Vu.

"I thought that starting a family would be too difficult for me because of my condition. There's a difference between being in love and being married. What would happen if we faced problems we could not solve? Our families were also opposed to our relationship," Hong explained.

This pressure pushed them apart for three years and Vu went in search of a stable life in HCM City. Love brought them back together though, and he asked her to run away with him to the City where they could start a new life together.

"The first days were difficult. I did everything I could make enough money to support us, but the main thing was we were happy together," Vu said.

In 2007, a third member of the family was welcomed into the world, and the baby boy had the unwitting effect of pulling the two families together.

"Our parents are happy for us now and accept me as a daughter-in-law and Vu as a son-in-law," Hong said.

Having moved a long way from her homeland, Hong seemed to forget about her sport and spent all of her time caring for her little son and earning money to feed him.

However sport had become an indispensable part of her life.

"In 2010 the coach who trained me when I was in Quang Tri introduced me to a club for people with disabilities in HCM City, and my career restarted," Hong recalled.

She added that she is lucky to be supported by a healthy husband who plays a key role in her success.

Hong wakes up early in the morning and leaves home at 6am everyday to sell lottery tickets.

"On a good day I can sell them all in the morning and return home at noon. If not I have to wander the streets until 3.30pm just minutes before the lottery numbers are announced," said Hong.

"Selling lottery tickets helps me to look at life from a different perspective. I meet all kinds of people and look at how they lead their lives. Many of them look at me and realise that people with disabilities are just ordinary people.

"Sometimes, people recognise me and congratulate me. That makes my day."

Her day doesn't finish there because there's still the housework to do before she wheels herself to the club for training.

Hong is now a member of Tan Binh District's Culture and Sports Centre, as well as of HCM City's powerlifting team.

"Sportsmen and women must train everyday and never give up. I'm aware that in any competition I represent Viet Nam so I have to take responsibility for honouring my country and always trying my hardest," Hong said.

"Powerlifting is hard for women, especially for people like me. In the past I was too eager and sometimes tried to lift too much. This led to serious injuries and sometimes I was out of action for months. I told myself that to achieve success, I must overcome these challenges."

"I have been impressed with Hong since I saw her at the 2003 competition. She surprised me with her gold at the Ha Noi ParaGames," said coach Mai Chi Dung.

"After signing a contract with HCM City, she led by example, and her positive attitude has helped her to win many titles for us. She is not only a good athlete, but also a devoted trainer for young people," he said.

Hong now own a collection of more than 20 titles including golds from the ParaGames and the Asian Championships. However, the pinnacle of her career was being chosen to represent Viet Nam at the London Paralympics, where she came agonisingly close to claiming a medal in the women's 40kg category.

The 34-year-old champion will head to Myanmar to compete for a title at the ParaGames later this month and add another twist to her already incredible journey. — VNS

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