|ON TRACK: Coach Nguyễn Thuận (right) poses with his athletes at the 31st SEA Games in May in Hà Nội. Thuận plays a key role in helping his home town of Hà Tĩnh to be a strong force in the national athletics competitions. Photo baohatinh.vn
He was dubbed 'crazy' when he decided to build an athletics team in Hà Tĩnh, a poor province that paid little attention to this sport and had not won a single national medal.
But Nguyễn Thuận did the 'incredible' job.
In recent years, he has pushed his hometown of Hà Tĩnh from a zero-medal locality to a strong sporting force.
While Thuận never reached the podium in a major competition as an athlete, he has produced several national champions in his two decades as a coach.
Thuận was known for his running ability as a student. He grabbed several titles at school competitions and became a member of Hà Tĩnh's athletics team in 1996 when he was 16.
|TRAINING DAY: Coach Nguyễn Thuận (right) guides his young athletes at the Hà Tĩnh Province's Training Centre. Hà Tĩnh junior runners have gradually made their marks in the national competitions. Photo baohatinh.vn
However, he left the team four years later, and decided to take higher education at the Bắc Ninh Sport and Physical Training University. He needed another four years to graduate from the Athletics Department, and returned home with a whole bag of knowledge and determination.
He worked for the Hà Tĩnh's Sport and Physical Training Centre and wanted to push running forward, although he had to start with nothing.
"I kicked off my 'plan' from almost zero. I had no financial support, poor facilities and just a few athletes," Thuận said.
"The first job to do was to hunt for young talents. I went to every district seeking my 'future champions'. Finding one was tough, but persuading his/her parents to let their child follow a sport career was tougher. Hà Tĩnh was a poor province, so people wanted their kids to be workers to bring home a monthly salary. Sport was not considered a job."
In the province, most people thought of running as athletics. Thuận surprised them when he trained not only runners, but also athletes in javelin throw, steeplechase and heptathlon.
"They said I was crazy as I did a job that no one else had done before. But I was fond of doing unusual things. I believed that success or failure was partly due to a trainer. Trainers must have professional knowledge and a theoretical basis."
Securing trainees was part of the plan. The other part is how to overcome shortage of equipment for training.
"At first I used bamboo sticks to train javelin throw. As our 'javelins', they would definitely be disqualified, but they helped my trainees imagine how the javelin was to compete with," he said.
"Meanwhile, we built brick walls for hurdles and had to ask the centre's security guard, previously a carpenter, to make wooden fences for the steeplechase. Training like that is so boring. But it was a new sport, so it was difficult to ask for financial support when we had no achievements."
|Coach Nguyễn Thuận (left) celebrates with his runner Trần Đình Sơn (2nd, left) at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines in 2019. Photo baohatinh.vn
Thuận firmly believed he could carry out his plan because he was confident with what he had learnt at university and from veteran coaches.
“I believe that equipment was a supplement to athletes' development, but only their efforts could make success. While doing my job, I learnt a lot from senior coaches and read international references to update my knowledge," Thuận said.
"Things were gradually moving on the right path, and about 30 athletes started taking prizes at competitions. We then received more attention and support from the provincial authorities and sports managers. However, our training conditions were far from centres such as those in Hà Nội and HCM City."
Thuận's team enjoyed its first success when his runner Nguyễn Văn Lý won a bronze medal at the 25th SEA Games in 2009 in Laos.
He was the first athlete of Hà Tĩnh to secure an individual medal at the regional sports meet's 3,000m steeplechase. He also finished first in the National Sports Games in 2010, ending the province's 20-year athletic title drought.
Thuận considered these unbelievable results his milestones and understood that he was going in the right direction.
|PEP TALK: Coach Nguyễn Thuận (left) speaks with runner Lê Ngọc Phúc after he finished second in the men's 400m event of the 31st SEA Games in May in Hà Nội. Photo baohatinh.vn
After that, many good results came.
Thuận's athletes have dominated the national junior tournament's heptathlon event for 10 years.
Trần Đình Sơn is the best athlete from his reign. The runner topped the national championship's 400m event in 2018 when he was 21 after four years of training. A year later, he bagged two relay golds and one individual silver at the 30th SEA Games in the Philippines. In the recent Hà Nội Games, he took two relay silvers.
Also, in the May event, Hà Tĩnh had three other competitors, and two of them won medals.
Lê Tiến Long, 21, was an unexpected winner in the 3,000m steeplechase as he overcame defending champion and senior teammate Đỗ Quốc Luật to top the podium.
Lê Ngọc Phúc, 20, meanwhile, secured silvers in the men's 400m and 4x400m relay.
Coach Thuận also put his trust in Nguyễn Trung Cường, a very talented runner.
Cường broke the 14-year-old national record in the 3,000m steeplechase in 2017 when he was 17. He advanced to the World Athletics U20 Championships finals and finished in the top seven. In the 30th SEA Games, he took silver.
"Long surprised with his performance. Phúc is my 'secret weapon' and will shine in the 32nd Games in Cambodia next year. Meanwhile, Cường has the most potential among my athletes," Thuận said.
|POWERFUL FINISH: Lê Tiến Long, one of coach Nguyễn Thuận's champions, crosses the finish line of the men's 3,000m steeplechase at the 31st SEA Games in May in Hà Nội. VNA/VNS Photo
"Now, I have made a few small achievements. People have recognised my work, and no one thinks I am 'crazy'," Thuận said, flashing a smile.
"I am happy with what I have been doing. Witnessing the growth and success of my athletes is the best thing in my life." VNS