|Canoeist Nguyễn Thị Hương celebrates her win at the 31st SEA Games in May. She is the most successful female athlete of the host, with five gold medals. VNA/VNS Photos
Nguyễn Thị Hương's outstanding performance at the 31st SEA Games makes her one of the outstanding candidates for the 2022 Victory Cup, an annual award given to the best athlete of the year.
The canoeist's five gold medals in her first regional sports meet is an incredible achievement.
From zero, Hương has become the hero of the canoeing team and was made an honorary citizen in her hometown.
Tears of a wrestler
Born in 2001 in a farming family in Sông Lô District of Vĩnh Phúc Province, Hương showed her athletic talent in different sports from a young age.
At 14, she won a gold medal in the provincial Sports Games in rod pushing, an obscure sport resembling a reverse tug-of-war. Wrestling scouts believed they had found a prodigy with tough, strong arms and amazing fitness.
|Canoeist Nguyễn Thị Hương competes in the 31st SEA Games' women's 1,000m individual event in May. She won the first gold for the canoeing team on May 17.
Overcoming the difficulties posed by strict discipline, homesickness and pains after every practice, Hương was eyed as a potential athlete for the very top.
However, her world collapsed when she was informed that the wrestling team cancelled.
"I was shocked but could not cry hearing that news. After a year of tears and blood with wrestling, I was empty-handed," Hương said.
Her dream of being a famous wrestler was washed away, and she did not know what to do.
Coach Nguyễn Việt Phương made a smart decision when he called Hương to practise in a new sport, locally at least, canoeing.
He told Hương that she would have to start over, but her rare athletic ability would help her succeed.
"I agreed to move to canoe but was nervous because having known nothing about it," said Hương.
Joining the new team, Hương suffered much more challenges. Her stature – short height and arms – were minus points in canoeing, and she did not even know how to swim, a requirement of every canoeist.
But her iron mind and determination swept the disadvantages away.
She did not let herself get discouraged and worked twice as hard as her teammates.
"I don't know how much water I drank to learn to swim and manage the canoe. I don't know how much time I have spent practising a difficult technique. Being a late member of the team, I told myself to practise extra time every day, so I could catch up with teammates," said Hương.
In two years, the girl who did not know how to paddle surprised her coaches with her strong progress, which was better and better every week.
"She was a master in canoeing's basic technique and learning advanced skills to push her canoe to go fastest. She is only 1.51m high, but her speed is remarkable," said national team coach Lưu Văn Hoàn.
|Canoeist Nguyễn Thị Hương (second, right) and teammates paddle in the women's C-4 1000m event. They won gold ahead of Indonesia and Thailand.
The former wrestler became a phenomenon in the local championships, dominating the events she participated.
Nothing could stop her from joining the national team in 2019 when she won her first international gold at the Southeast Asian Youth Canoeing Championship.
At the 31st SEA Games on home ground, the debutant was expected to make a big bang, but none of her coaches expected anything quite as sensational as what panned out.
Hương participated in five events and won every title: the individual 200m, 500m and 1,000m categories, and two team classes of quartets 500m and 1,000m.
"Luckily, I won five golds. Among them, the most memorable one was the 1,000m category. I passed strong rivals to win with a time of 5min 0.752sec," Hương said.
"Standing on the top podium and watching the national flag flying high was so emotional. I knew my team and would do much better at that moment than the target of two golds set before the Games."
And she was right; Việt Nam received happy news consecutively after her gold streak started. The team's titles were far more than expected. In the previous Games in the Philippines, Việt Nam grabbed only two canoeing golds.
"Her worry-free mind and winning focus helped her paddle to the finish fast. Remarkably, she dominated in all categories from the beginning and won persuasively," said coach Hoàn.
"We believe her results would have been much better if she faced stronger rivals."
|Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chính awards Nguyễn Thị Hương a Labour Order for her outstanding results at the 31st SEA Games.
With five golds, Hương is the most successful canoeist in Việt Nam's history. She was the best female athlete of the 31st SEA Games and played a key role in helping Việt Nam place No 1 in the canoeing ranking for the first time with eight titles and No 1 in the medal tally overall.
Hương was one of four athletes who received the honourable Labour Order, second-class, from President Nguyễn Xuân Phúc.
The Victory Cup's winners will be announced in January, and Hương is widely tipped to take the statue.
"Hương's special road to success proves her talent. She has real potential and will develop well in the future," said Ngô Ích Quân, head of Elite Sport Department at the Việt Nam Sports Administration.
"She has been added to our list of athletes who will be strongly supported to cross the Southeast Asia border. She will vie for titles in the Asia championship, and Asian Games and target an Olympic slot." VNS