HA NOI — Fencing is not a popular sport in Viet Nam, resulting in a limited number of training facilities.
Nguyen Tien Nhat's inclusion at the London Olympics has provided a boost for both athletes and fans
The 22-year-old athlete will make history as the first Vietnamese fencer to take part in the Olympics, where he will also have the honour of being the national flag bearer.
Viet Nam is a tiny fish in a large pond when it comes to fencing, and Nhat is relatively unknown, with his greatest achievement to date being a silver medal at an Olympic qualifier in April which earned him a spot in the men's epee event.
His chances of winning a medal are slim, although the draw has not been made yet.
Phung Le Quang, head of the sports ministry's Fencing Department, said Nhat was likely to meet one of the world top ten including No 1 Nikolai Novosjolov of Estonia or No 2 Max Heinzer of Switzerland.
Nhat took up fencing in 2005 at the age of 15 after being inspired by performances at the Athens Games in 2004.
"They made a great impression on me and I wanted to find out more. I wondered if that one day, I would be able to step onto an Olympic competition mat," said Nhat.
His chance came when the HCM City Sport Department was seeking athletes for fencing in an attempt to popularise the sport in the nation's most crowded city.
Nhat, who taught himself basic techniques by watching TV, was accepted.
"Nhat has been training hard and professionally. He always strives to achieve higher levels," said coach Nguyen Thi Kim Nga.
He first practised all three events in fencing: the foil, sabre and epee, and has taken home a number of medals from national tournaments. It was only after he won a bronze at the 24th SEA Games in Thailand that he was advised to focus on the epee. Since then, Nhat has dominated the event at national and regional championships, and become a regular member of the international team.
Under the guidance of South Korean coach Chang Tea-suk, Nhat has shown great progress over the past two years, and was selected to participate at the Olympic qualifying round in Japan in April.
The responsibility of winning a berth for Viet Nam fell on his seniors Nguyen Thi Tuoi, Nguyen Thanh Van and Nguyen Thi Le Dung, who are the country's highest ranked fencers.
With no pressure on him, Nhat was free to compete with a clear mind, and made it to the final without any difficulty, before losing 7-15 to Ruslan Kudayev from Uzbekistan.
A silver medal was enough for him to qualify for the Olympics.
He became the 11th member of the Viet Nam team heading to London.
"Olympic participation will be a big milestone in his career, and it is a turning point for Vietnamese fencing," said Quang after Nhat secured his place.
His manager understands that Nhat has little hope of progressing in the competition, but still believes he is capable of causing an upset.
"It is a big challenge for a young man like Nhat, but it would be great if he could win one of his matches," said Quang. "If he uses the right tactics, he could do that."
The draw for the fencing event will be held tomorrow, and competition will begin in a knock-out format four days later at the ExCel Exhibition Centre in London.
"It is difficult to say what will happen because it's the first time one of our fencers has competed at the Olympics. Nhat has finished a training course in South Korea and taken big steps both technically and physically before flying to London at the weekend. I hope that he can surprise us in the same way he did by qualifying," said coach Nga. — VNS