Back on the mat after mental struggles

March 21, 2021 - 08:13

Karate fighter Nguyễn Thị Ngoan won her fight against depression and stress to return to national team. She will vie for a gold medal at the coming SEA Games on hometurf


ON THE CHIN: Nguyễn Thị Ngoan trains with coach Lê Tùng Dương at the National Sports and Training Centre 1. Photo

Thanh Hà

She may be drenched in sweat, exhausted, and in pain, but she 'loves' it. The 23-year-old Nguyễn Thị Ngoan has just finished a tough morning training session, which at one time she thought she would never get to experience again.

About two years have now passed since she left the national team to return home after a bout of depression.

Disappearing to nowhere

Ngoan didn’t train with her teammates after mid-2019, when they were all working hard in preparation for the 30th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in the Philippines.

“We saw some signs of mental health issues at the time,” recalled Vũ Sơn Hà, head of the Karate Department at the National Sports Administration. “Ngoan competed in several tournaments but didn’t get the results expected. That actually made her situation worse.”

“The more we watched her, the more we saw she was struggling. After tests were conducted, she was diagnosed as being heavily stressed and depressed. We had to send her to hospital for intensive treatment.”

Ngoan stayed in hospital for weeks before her mother took her home, where she was with her family and friends which, according to doctors, would help her relax and feel comfortable.

“My mother said my mental illness was so serious that I couldn’t recognise people -- my coaches and teammates and even her sometimes,” Ngoan recalled.

Doctors said her problems were partly due to a long period of training and competing under significant pressure.

After winning Việt Nam’s first world-class gold medal at the K-1 Premier League tournament in 2017, she took part in a lot of events and trained hard. Due to a shortage of financial resources, she sometimes took care of everything relating to a competition, without help from coaches or logistic teams.

Her plan was to strengthen her top 10 position and qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

The big shock for Ngoan was her unexpected fourth-placed finish at the Asian Games 2018. The result led to Ngoan collapsing, which was a blow to the country’s hopes of having a representative at the Tokyo Olympics, where karate made its debut in the regional event.

Ngoan left the team in July, 2019, just five months ahead of the SEA Games, where she was expected to win gold in the 61kg category.

“Without Ngoan, we had one gold less than targeted, and our only hope for Tokyo was also gone,” said coach Mai Xuân Lượng.

When she left she was world No 8. She is now No 64 and has no chance of competing in the Olympics this summer.

Born to a poor family of three children, Ngoan, the eldest, had to help her vendor-mother feed her siblings. The bonuses she picked up at karate tournaments were a primary source of income for the family. No wins meant no money.

Back for gold

When she first stepped away from competing, few believed she could recover her mental health anytime soon while others thought her career was over.

WINNING WAYS: Nguyễn Thị Ngoan with her team gold medal at the National Top Karate Clubs Championship in 2020. Photo

“Staying in bed all day or just wandering around the house became so boring,” Ngoan said. “And not competing made me unhappy. So, I started trying to train on my own, to strengthen my body and remain familiar with karate moves.”

“I thought about the beautiful memories I had from being a student, when I would come home to help my parents, and even about the medals I won at school competitions. These made me happy, and I started to feel better.”

“They also gave me the energy to return to karate.”

In her golden days, Ngoan was one of the best karatekas in Việt Nam.

Despite being relatively young, her technical and attacking style helped her win titles at the U21 Asian championships in 2016 and fourth place at the world youth championships when she was 18.

She also pocketed three golds at ASEAN tournaments from 2016 to 2018 and a bronze medal at the 2017 SEA Games.

Her efforts to return following her bout of depression would never be enough without her coach Lê Tùng Dương, who was summoned to the national team after more than one year’s absence.

His first action was to call on karate officials to bring Ngoan back into the squad.

He believed in his best athlete, who won a women’s team gold with the Military squad at the National Top Karate Clubs Championship in late 2020.

“Ngoan joined the team after a substantial effort on her part,” said Dương, who guided Ngoan to K-1 gold in 2017 and bronze in 2018. “She is working really hard and is gradually adapting to the tough schedule.”

“She still has a lot of potential. If she can maintain her level of performance she could win medals domestically and internationally. I believe her target of winning Việt Nam a medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, in 2022 is achievable, while a gold is very much possible at the upcoming SEA Games in Việt Nam.”

Ngoan has no way to compete at this year’s Olympics, but other tournaments are being held where she can test her skills during her return.

Ahead of the SEA Games, the former world champion and her teammates will warm up in different events over the next few months, such as the regional championship, the Asian championship, the Olympic qualifiers, and the world championship.

ON TOP: Nguyễn Thị Ngoan (right) lands a kick on her Canadian rival Jumaa Haya during the final of the K1 Premier League in Germany in 2017. --- Photo

Coach Dương will keep a close eye on all of his karatekas, especially Ngoan, to improve upon their strengths while identifying their rivals’ weaknesses, to determine what tactics will bring a win.

“It’s amazing that I’m training with my teammates again -- my sisters and brothers,” Ngoan said tearfully. “It’s a professional yet loving environment where I’m encouraged and pushed to perform. I have promised to work hard to win a SEA Games gold for my country and for myself.” VNS