HÀ NỘI — As one of Việt Nam's strong points in all regional competitions, the pencak silat team is expected to win seven gold medals at the upcoming SEA Games, although it will be a tough task.
Việt Nam is home to many world champions and is considered one of the strongest pencak silat centres internationally.
In the recent Games, organisers cut a number of categories including Việt Nam's key classes, leading to a drop in results.
Furthermore, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in competition rules, Vietnamese athletes are up against it to make a statement.
"New rule switches since 2020 make many changes in the way of counting points in the tanding (combat) discipline. Our coaching board have to learn and discuss a lot before spreading information to athletes, as well as applying it in our training," said head coach Nguyễn Văn Hùng.
"Over the past two years, we have rarely taken part in international events, so it is hard to know how the new rules are conducted in reality. We were lucky to compete at February's Southeast Asian championship and my fighters did a good job with nine gold medals," said Hùng.
His athletes also grabbed two silvers and three bronzes to be the tournament's No 1 team.
In the coming Games, there will be 16 categories for both men and women. Coach Hùng has his best athletes and expects seven golds, mostly from combat categories.
Hopes are on Asian Games winner Trần Đình Nam (men's U75kg), world champion Nguyễn Duy Tuyến (men's U85kg), Asian Games champion Nguyễn Văn Trí (men's U95kg), Quàng Thị Thu Nghĩa (women's U75kg) and Nguyễn Thị Cẩm Nhi (women's U70kg) among other title favourites.
"It is the first time I am to compete on home turf. Definitely, it is a little nervous but also exciting. But I am confident that I know how to decrease pressure for best performance," said four-time world champion Nguyễn Duy Tuyến.
"At the recent Southeast Asian championship, I was introduced to the new rules by officials of the Southeast Asian federation before competing. I believe that we have been quickly learning it by heart. I ask myself to win a gold," said Tuyến who won at the 2017 SEA Games, though that category from 2019 has been dropped.
His teammate Nghĩa, the world and Asian champion, will make her SEA Games debut this year, and is feeling confident.
"To me, they are all powerful athletes. Thailand is physically strong; Indonesia is home to this martial art. I, however, have not had regular tournaments for years. But I still want gold in my first SEA Games".
Indonesia and Thailand will be Việt Nam's biggest rivals, vying for the top overall ranking.
Indonesia is the motherland of pencak silat. The team was also No 1 at the previous Games in the Philippines.
Meanwhile, according to Hùng, Thai fighters will be very competitive because the new rules make pencak silat more similar to Muay Thai, the traditional martial art of Thailand. Many Muay Thai athletes have switched to pencak silat.
"They have trained in Muay Thai since they were young, so they have built strong physique which is an advantage compared to us. However, they are disadvantaged in terms of technique, which is worse than athletes from Indonesia, Malaysia and Việt Nam," said Hùng.
"We are currently focused on improving our fitness to make ourselves in balance with the Thais.
"Singapore are also a threatening team as they were one of the countries who proposed to change the rules and took part in the process. They have been training with the new rules for a long time and should be much more fluent than us," Hùng said.
Apart from technique, the coaching board are also working on athletes' spirit and morale under high pressure.
"It is only four weeks to go. This period is very important to prepare the final touches for the team. We encourage athletes to feel comfortable ahead of fights. We give them no pressure of medals but ask them to perform like they are training. This would bring better results," said Hùng.
"I strongly believe that they will overcome these challenges and complete our mission."
Pencak silat will be held on May 10-16 at Hà Nội's Bắc Từ Liêm Gymnasium and doors will be open for supporters. — VNS