Nguyễn Văn Lai wants to take his title back at the 31st SEA Games on home turf in 2021. Photo laodong.vn
HÀ NỘI — Runner Nguyễn Văn Lai is a creature of habit and every day, he wakes up early and starts training at Hà Nội’s National Sports Training Centre.
After warming up, the four-time Southeast Asian (SEA) Games champion runs dozens of kilometres.
As the COVID-19 crisis changes lives across the world, things are much the same for Lai, who is isolated at the centre with many of his teammates.
Lai, who lost his Southeast Asian Games crowns at the 30th edition last December in the Phillippines, hopes to regain them at the 2021 Games in Việt Nam.
“I believe in my ability. I will face strong rivals but I will never give up,” Lai told Việt Nam News.
Born in 1986 in Thanh Hóa Province, Lai was a soldier before he was an athlete.
In the military, he worked as a cook for his unit and took part in sporting tournaments organised by the military.
His success impressed coaches and he was sent to the Military Sports Centre in 2008 for professional training as a 22-year-old.
After two years of training under strict military discipline, Lai won the men’s 5,000m national championship in 2009. He defended his title the next year and broke a national championship record.
It helped him earn a berth in the national team and enter the 2011 SEA Games where he grabbed bronzes in the 5,000m and 10,000m events on his international debut.
Since then, Lai set has dominated local races for the last decade.
Two years later he extended his shadow to the biennial regional games, at the
Lai had no problems winning two golds in the 2013 SEA Games and took another gold and set a record of 14:04.82 in the 5,000m in 2015. In the 2017 Games, he won a 5,000m gold and a 10,000m silver.
“I have no secret in training. It is just one of my habits since I was small,” said Lai.
“Like many other children in rural areas, I woke up early. I love to run every day for my health and I often ran 5-7km before doing anything.
“Then, when I joined the military, the tough environment forced me to work hard and made me a modern athlete,” he said.
Lai was one of the athletes who helped Việt Nam end Thailand’s 28-year reign in athletics at the 29th Games in 2017 in Malaysia.
The Vietnamese track-and-field team brought home 17 gold medals, equal to results of Thailand (nine) plus the hosts (eight) together.
They also topped the table in the previous Games in Manila, but Lai faced big challenges and failed to defend his title.
The 30th Games saw a number of naturalised athletes running for Thailand and the Philippines, causing problems for other teams, including Việt Nam.
Lai struggled as in his long-distance run categories, Thailand introduced Kieran Tuntivate, who was originally an American runner.
In the 10,000m, Lai slipped from second in 2017 to third in 2019 as Tuntivate dominated from start to finish.
In Lai’s favourite 5,000m, Tuntivate, 22, had more difficulties and could only separate away from the defending champion in the final metres, leaving Lai with a silver medal.
“I faced many obstacles in this Games because of naturalised runners. They are young and at the Asian level. If we were competing without them, I would definitely have defended my title,” 33-year-old Lai told reporters after running in Manila.
“The organisation of the hosts was also poor. I could not sleep well because of a lot of noise. It's the first time I've competed in such a situation (which affects my performance),” he said.
The national team athletes have returned to train since March for competitions in 2020 and 2021. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many events have been delayed or cancelled.
Lai is among those targeting SEA Games victory when Việt Nam hosts for the second time in late 2021.
“The pandemic makes our training and competing plans a mess. However, it also affects athletes in other countries too. So everyone is the same. Those who can overcome difficulties will be the winners,” said Lai.
“I will work harder to have a better result in the coming Games which is my biggest event in 2021. I really hope to win my gold back in the 5,000m.
“I have searched information on the Thai runner (Tuntivate). The difference between his best result and mine in the 5,000m is not large. I am really confident I will pass him. I will get my revenge,” said Lai. VNS