|Powerful stroke: Nguyen Thi Anh Vien competes in the women's 200m butterfly. She won a gold and set a new record. — VNS Photo Quoc Khanh
Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, a serious challenger at the recent Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, says she will be even more competitive at the world championships in Russia next month.
The top ASEAN swimmer competed in her second SEA Games, which ended in Singapore on Tuesday, winning an unprecedented eight gold medals, and a silver and bronze medal each, besides setting eight records, the first-ever such instance in Viet Nam's sporting history.
She was one of the best swimmers of the SEA Games, leaving behind legend Yoscelin Yeo of Singapore, who had won seven individual gold medals at the 17th Games in 1993 in her hometown.
The Vietnamese swimmer's achievements made headlines. She was featured on the front pages of several local and international publications, as well as online newspapers such as Daily Mail, AFP, Yahoo Sports and Channel NewsAsia, besides The New Paper.
The New Paper, the SEA Games official media partner, even voted her as the top foreign star and among the best five athletes of the SEA Games. It said on its website tnp.sg: "Vietnamese Nguyen Thi Anh Vien could possibly be the only swimmer at the games who could come close to outshining swimming star (Joseph) Schooling. The 18-year-old won an impressive eight gold medals and set five games records. Let's not forget she participated in 11 events."
Nguyen Thi Anh Vien's results at the SEA Games
1. Gold medal and record (4min 10.75sec) in the 400m free style.
2. Gold and record (1:59.27) in the 200m free style
3. Gold and record (2:1.12) in the 200 butterfly.
4. Gold and record (2:13.53) in the 200m individual medley.
5. Gold and record (2:14.12) in the 200m backstroke.
6. Record (4:43.93) in the 400m IM heat.
7. Gold and record (4:42.88) in the 400m IM final.
8. Gold and record (8:34.85) in the 800m free style.
9. Gold in the 200m breaststroke
10. Silver in the 100m free style
11. Bronze in the 50m backstroke
The media called her the 'Iron Girl' and 'Swim Queen' of Viet Nam to describe her outstanding performance during six days at the OCBC Centre.
Vien's results were much better than what she did at the Myanmar Games two years ago, when she won three titles - also a turning point for Viet Nam's swimming world - in her debut.
The incredible progress of the 'little mermaid' is a result of years of hard training in the United States with National Team Coach Dang Anh Tuan who, she says, is not only her trainer, but a brother and a father too.
"Everything that I have today is thanks to my coach. He has to work 10 times, even 100 times, harder than me," Vien said. "He trains me every day as a coach, cooks for me as a father, and encourages and advises me as a brother."
Tuan transformed her from an athlete who initially swam like 'a mosquito larva' into a candidate for the world's top three ranks.
"I first saw her at an event in HCM City in 2009. Among 20 swimmers in the pool, I found that despite her non-technique style, she had potential. I tested her and she did very well. There was no doubt that she was going to be a huge name," Tuan said.
Vien's coach said she had all the characteristics of a swimming genius such as height, long arm span, long back and large feet and hands.
The 18-year-old swimmer is 1.73m tall, with an arm span of 1.78m, just 4cm short of her idol, Michael Phelps of the United States.
With Tuan's support, Vien was called to the national team in 2010.
It's been just five years since then, but she has made magical moves, which Tuan said was like sprinting to the finish for new records.
Vien made it to the number 14 rank in the world in the women's 400m individual medley in 2014, thanks to her one gold and two silver medals at the Youth Olympics, two bronzes at the Asian Games and good performance in competitions in the US.
Earlier, she grabbed three golds and one silver at the Asian Youth Games in China in 2013.
She was voted the Best Athlete of the Year in 2013 and 2014.
"I have trained several athletes, but none like her. I told her she is a professional athlete. The money that the government invests to support her is also from our people who have to work hard every day. She understands and deeply respects that," Tuan said.
"Vien is a girl with a steel will, which is sometimes greater than what she can do.
"This iron will helps her achieve impressive breakthroughs in her career. I am proud of having such an athlete," he said.
Regarding her feelings about her achievements, Vien said, "I want to win more titles. There are some categories where I still make mistakes, leading to worse results than while training. And in some other categories, I think I can do better. I have to try harder.
"Sometimes, I also feel very tired of training and want to give up. But then I think, I have come so far. If I quit, all the efforts of those years will be wasted, and it would not be worthwhile for me. So I train harder," Vien said.
Her life is a cycle of eating, sleeping and swimming, but the girl is satisfied with it and always focuses on her target of swimming faster and becoming the fastest swimmer in all competitions.
Vien is said to be a simple girl who does not feel any pressure from the media that paid her a lot of attention in Singapore and at home.
She always says what she did in the SEA Games was just a good start in the Southeast Asian region and that there are better swimmers in the world.
The girl has no Facebook account or mobile phone, doesn't know how to ride a motorbike or use the internet, and does not have many friends, but she wants to be as successful as Michael Phelps.
"I hope to be an Olympic champion. My idol is Phelps. He is a mirror that I look at everyday to push myself. He has everything that I admire, such as body form, duration and great technique. I want to be a swimmer like him.
"The SEA Games was only the one in my competition plan this year. There are many more to come. The next one will be the world championships where I want to enter the final of the 400m IM event," Vien said.
She has just about some days to spend at home with family before returning to the US for training. It is a normal schedule for the girl, who has been living up to 364 days away from her country for the last four years.
"Sport is harsh. It is partly like a fight for existence. If we do not win, we lose. Only training hard makes us perform better. That is the reason why Vien cannot rest too much. Her important targets lie ahead," Tuan said.
Vien agreed with her coach.
"There is no limit for records. I plan to swim further than what I have done. If I am satisfied with myself today, it means that I am a loser. I am determined to conquer higher peaks in my career," she said.
The champion has won a berth to compete in two different events at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics next summer. It will be the second time that Vien has represented Viet Nam in Olympics.
She also plans to change her medal colour from bronze to gold at the Asian Games in 2019.
"It is not very difficult to get a chance to swim in the Olympics. The real matter is how to enter the top eight to compete in the finals.
"It is a huge task, but I will try my best with the year's time that I have. I also want to win at the next Asian Games," she said.
"We are on the right track and, believe me, Vien is a rare talent. She could be a world champion," Tuan, who has put all his hopes on Vien, said.
After her brilliant performance at the SEA Games, Vien is the top athlete of Viet Nam to receive more support in the future.
"Vien is now Viet Nam's pride. We'll have specific plans for her, and give her the best to help her achieve better results. The main target will be the Olympics," Tran Duc Phan, deputy head of the National Sports Administration, said. — VNS