Việt Nam veteran sets eyes on rowing golds

August 18, 2021 - 09:04

Rowing athlete Phạm Thị Huệ has refused to let her sadness at missing out on the Olympics distract her from winning gold at the SEA Games on home turf


Phạm Thị Huệ (left) and teammate Lê Thị Hiền celebrate their 30th SEA Games silver medal in the women's rowing pair event in 2019 in the Philippines. — Photo

Thanh Hà

Someone once said "no man ever steps in the same river twice" but Phạm Thị Huệ has proved the exception to the rule. She has twice won an official Olympic berth but had to stay home both times and instead witnessing athletes competing on TV.

The Vietnamese lead rower has many regrets because she does not know if a third time will come. But she has left such thoughts behind to focus on her upcoming task, winning gold for Việt Nam at the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games on home turf.

Born in the central province of Quảng Bình's Bố Trạch District, 32-year-old Huệ is the most decorated athlete in Việt Nam rowing. She is the oldest, most experienced and brave. She even won a gold medal while pregnant.

Olympic dream

Huệ and her teammates took part in the Asia and Oceania Olympic qualification tournament in Japan in early May.

She successfully finished fourth in the women's single sculls category, which was enough to take an official slot to the 2020 Tokyo Games in July.

Phạm Thị Huệ says athlete must keep training hard everyday to maintain their form. Photo

Fortunately for Việt Nam but unfortunately for Huệ, her teammates Lường Thị Thảo and Đinh Thị Hảo also qualified as they came second in the women’s lightweight double sculls.

Each country was only allowed to send one representative from the qualifier to the Olympics, and duo Thảo and Hảo were picked. The same thing happened to Huệ five years ago when she vied for her slot at the Rio de Janeiro Games.

She had to leave the only spot to duo Phạm Thị Thảo and Tạ Thanh Huyền due to the one-representative regulation. 

In Việt Nam’s sporting history, she has been the only person to experience this.

"When I was small, I wanted to be a famous sportswoman. But when I become a rower, I always dreamed of competing in an Olympics," said Huệ. "I was really happy when I qualified. Nothing can compare with the feeling when you reach your target. It was regrettable and I was really sad when I found out I was not chosen. Because I had gone a long way, tried my best and sacrificed many things for my target. I was so close to my dream.

"I encouraged myself that my teammates also deserved to have that chance. I should be pleased because we pushed Việt Nam to the Olympics. They (teammates) would compete for themselves and for me in Tokyo."

Despite the incredible setback (twice), Huệ remained stoic and refused to wallow in her pain for too long, showing the attitude of a born winner.

"It just took me a little time for sadness. I still have many missions ahead and there are many tournaments that I have to conquer in the future. Nobody can practise and do my tasks for me," she said.

Born to row

Huệ caught the eyes of scouts when she was just 17-years-old as a student competing in school sport games. Her good form, durable physique and strong arms promised a talented athlete.

"I did not think much when they asked me to become an athlete. I love sport and wanted to conquer every target," Huệ told Việt Nam News about her first days rowing.

The girl, who had no idea about rowing and could not even swim, was first guided with a model rowing machine while doing gym work to improve her physical strength. After that, she became familiar with a real boat on water, practising the basic moves to more advanced ones following the coaches' plans.

Phạm Thị Huệ (bottom, left) and a teammate compete in the women's pair rowing competition at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang. — AFP/VNA Photo

Just one year later, Huệ won a national championship title and became a national team member, a dream that few athletes achieve.

Since then, Huệ has won many national medals in both regional and continental tournaments.

Under her belt are four golds and two silvers from the SEA Games, three silvers and one bronze from the Asian Games, together with numerous silverware from the Asian Championships and Asian Cups.

"Every medal is valuable to me. They mark my progress in rowing. But the most memorable ones were the silver in the 2014 Asian Games when I had to lose 13kg to move from the heavyweight to lightweight category; and twice grabbing Olympic slots," said Huệ.

But to her supporters, the most impressive feat was her taking part in the 26th SEA Games in 2011. The debutante and three other teammates dominated the coxless fours event from the beginning and stormed to the finish line.

It was not until she was on the podium that she revealed she was four-month pregnant.

"I felt good and strong. I had no pregnancy symptoms. And the SEA Games was coming and I wanted to win. My family knew it but I did not tell anybody in my team. They just thought I had gained weight, otherwise I would miss my chance," Huệ said.

Huệ is a rare athlete in Việt Nam in that she still participates in an elite sport after getting married and as the mother of two daughters. She is also only rower from the 2011 generation still competing. At the age of 31, Huệ decided to pursue a Bachelor’s degree at the Đà Nẵng Sports and Training College in 2020.

The oldest student in the class is now focusing on winning a gold medal again at the coming SEA Games and the 2022 Asian Games in China.

"The Games might be postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I was a little disappointed because me and my teammates really want to compete on home ground," said Huệ.

The outbreak has strongly affected the whole country, not only sport, and Huệ and her teammates have not had the chance to practise and compete internationally but they keep working hard.

"Sport is different from other subject which you learn by heart and just need some hours to review before examination. In sport, success in this event does not mean it will happen in the next one. We have to train hard day by day and maintain our good form to be ready for all competitions," said Huệ.

Phạm Thị Huệ (right) is the most experienced athlete in Việt Nam's women's rowing team. She competes in both single, double and quad events. — AFP/VNA Photo

The veteran, who also works as an airline ticket agent to support her family, has not set a long-term plan as she said at her age another chance at an Olympics was not easy, but gold in Hà Nội's SEA Games is clearly in her sights.

"The 30th SEA Games result is a big regret as I grabbed only a silver. My top target for the coming Games is a better position, a gold medal," said Huệ.

"I have learnt many things and grown up well through rowing. The hard training process made me an iron woman. I have enjoyed all the ups and downs in career but will never forget my happiness when I was on top of the podium. For that great feeling, I have always tried and will always do my best." — VNS