Ironman Khoa inspires disabled to shine

April 07, 2024 - 07:55
Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa took the Ironman title that is the dream of many athletes, becoming the first disabled triathlete in Việt Nam's history.


Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa in action at the 12th ASEAN Para Games in 2023 in Cambodia. VNS Photo Thái Dương

Nguyễn Đạt

On the white sandy beach of Phú Quốc Island, Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa swam, biked and ran. He crossed the finish line after 2hr 13.45min and became the first disabled triathlete in Việt Nam's history.

Completing the Ironman 70.3 Phú Quốc challenge, Khoa swam 750m in 19.20min, biked 20km in 49min and ran 5km in 50.57min, and took the Ironman title that is the dream of many athletes.

Born healthy in 1991, Khoa suffered spinal cancer at age 6 and his legs atrophied before becoming completely paralysed. He was unable to walk.

"My spine was paralysed, half of my body could not move, and I had to lie in one place all day. After an MRI scan, doctors discovered a tumour on my spine. I had to stay in the hospital for a year, wearing a support belt," Khoa said.

Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa takes part in the 2023 Ironman 70.3 in Phú Quốc. Photo
courtesy of Anh Khoa

The boy underwent six bouts of chemotherapy, but the treatment did not work. Doctors advised Khoa to practise swimming to help his spine, legs and body recover better.

Super swimmer

He struggled to learn to swim, but the determined boy did not give up. Six months after the first days, Khoa could walk from home to the swimming pool, needing no support from his mother as usual.

Khoa fell in love with swimming and the sport opened a new chapter in his life.

He has not only been a national champion but also a multi-winner at the ASEAN Para Games, a biennial regional competition for athletes with disabilities.

In his medal collection are more than 30 gold medals from nine Para Games along with many national records. He also secured two titles from the Asian championship in his strong points, the 100m butterfly and 100m freestyle classes.

In the latest Games in Cambodia last year, Khoa brought home three golds, one silver, and three bronzes and set up another record.

Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa (right) runs during the 2023 Ironman 70.3 in Phú Quốc.

Not only dominating the 50m pool, Khoa pushed himself to reach an even higher level.

He took part in a 20km ocean swimming challenge with friends to raise funds for children with difficulties. And the triathlon was the next big target.

Swimming was his strong point, but biking and running were huge issues as Khoa has atrophied legs.

"My goal in practising the triathlon is to encourage children with intellectual disabilities to confidently integrate into society and try harder every day," Khoa said.

New level

In 2018, Khoa and two foreign teammates won the men's relay event in the Ironman 70.3 Vietnam. Four years later, he took another title when competing in a group with two regular Vietnamese athletes.

The winnings were strong and pushed Khoa to test himself in the individual category, having experience in all three stages of the race.

He practised running and cycling for the 2023 Phú Quốc Ironman 70.3's Sprint category.

Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa and his medals from the 2023 ASEAN Para Games.

"Triathlon is more fun than swimming because I am not under the pressure of a result. I can compete and interact with other ordinary athletes, witnessing them overcome challenges and limits," Khoa said.

"I want to see whether I can do it or not. I have never run that far before. 5km is quite short for normal people, but it takes me nearly 1 hour to complete it."

One day after the individual event, Khoa took charge of the cycling stage in the relay with two other athletes with disabilities, swimmer Trịnh Thị Bích Như and runner Huỳnh Hữu Cảnh.

The trio made history as the first team of disabilities in Việt Nam to complete an Ironman 70.3 competition.

He has now set a target of taking part in the full Ironman 140.6 (3.8km swim, 180km bike, 42km run) soon.

"If I did not practise sport, I might have become a worker somewhere. Sport plays an important role and creates magic in my life. I hope everyone dares to dream and not give up because of disability," said Khoa. "I want people to realise that, no matter your disability, you can still do useful things in life."

As sport has changed his life, Khoa wants to help children with disabilities improve their lives too.

Võ Huỳnh Anh Khoa instructs a boy to swim at the Yết Kiêu Swimming Club in HCM City.

He has instructed children to swim since 2012. After 12 years, he has trained nearly 50, including those with Down syndrome and mental illnesses.

"Training disabled children to swim requires patience. They easily forget what I tell them, and I have to repeatedly teach them again and again," Khoa said.

"The more they practise, the better they swim. I hope they can develop well and be confident not only in the pool but also in society. Seeing them happy and smiling makes me feel great." VNS