The life and career of Vietnamese star swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien

The Vietnamese swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien has become a ‘hunted target’ of both the media and her competitors at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore after she won four gold medals, a silver, and a bronze

Nguyen Thi Anh Vien (C) receives the gold medal for the women's 800m freestyle category at the 28th Southeast Asian Games.

Nguyen Thi Anh Vien was brought to water to swim by her grandfather when she was three years old.

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The first ‘pool’ in her life was the Ba Cao Canal that runs in front of her house in Giai Xuan Commune, Phong Dien District, Can Tho City in the Mekong Delta.

Her first professional swimming teacher was Vo Thanh Binh, the coach of the Army Sports Center No. 4 under the 9th Military Zone in Can Tho.

Who is Nguyen Thi Anh Vien? She is the winner of four gold medals and breaker of five records at the 28th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games going on in Singapore till June 16.

Vien has also grabbed a silver and a bronze at the tournament, which is held every two years.

Her four gold medals came from the women’s 200m backstroke, women’s 200m individual medley, women’s 400m individual medley, and women’s 800m freestyle.

The swimmer is now 19 years old and wears the chevron of a captain of the Vietnam People’s Army. She was born on November 9, 1996 and is 173cm tall and weighs 60kg.

First impression from first coach

Coach Vo Thanh Binh met Anh Vien in 2007 when he was assigned to select and recruit swimming prospects for the army sports center.

Just a couple of months past the age of ten, Vien won a silver medal at the Phu Dong national sports festival in 2007.

“She displayed passion in her swimming style and competition spirit,” Binh recalled. “I was especially impressed by her spirit.”

After selecting Vien, the coach came to Long Tuyen 1 Elementary School in Binh Thuy District, where she was enrolled, to recommend her sports teacher there pay attention to her and take chances to connect with her family.

Binh also found the way to Vien’s family and persuaded her parents to allow her to train at the army sports center.

Her parents were hesitant about the suggestion but her grandfather supported it, and the swimmer was finally sent to the center.

With the bold and strong characteristics of a man growing up in the Mekong Delta, her grandfather took her to the canal in the front garden to teach her swimming in a ‘weird’ way.

“He carried Vien and some of her cousins to the canal, swam to the middle of the waterway, and dived under the water,” said Nguyen Van Tac, Vien’s father.

“The kids had to swim back to the bank by themselves.

“They could swim well and quickly that way.”

The kids initially tried to reach their granddad in the water but he kept his distance from them and stepped back to prove to them that they could swim themselves without help.

A strong girl

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Nguyen Thi Anh Vien (L) is congratulated by one of her competitors after she wins a swimming event at the 28th Southeast Asian Games in Singapore. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Learning at the army center meant Vien had to stay far from home and could only visit her family once every week.

Most trainees there cried since they missed home but Vien rarely did, Binh said. She could quickly imitate swimming movements, he added.

After training for three months, Binh took Vien and others to take part in a swimming contest of the southern Vietnamese region in Dong Thap Province and she won a bronze medal.

“I was then just a student and was not awarded an official contract with the army sports center,” said coach Binh. “But I was so happy with the bronze medal that I couldn’t hold back my tears.

“It relieved my worry of gaining nothing at the competition.”

The coach added, “Coaches at the grassroots level are so happy if their learners collect medals at domestic tournaments. For Vien, it’s out of my expectations. So happy!”

Now, Vien often chats with her first coach after her victories.

Since she began pursuing a swimming career, the athlete has had little time to visit her parents and family.

During the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday in February, Vien had only 24 hours to stay with her family.

“Realizing that we are permanently worried about her, Vien assured us that she will win top prizes so that we won’t need to worry anymore,” her mother said.

For many times, Vien had to celebrate Tet – Vietnam’s most important festival – far from home to pursue her career.

Vien was admitted into the army and is now the youngest captain in its history.

Last year, she was promoted by two chevrons, the first time that has happened.

Vien’s coaches said that she can reap the achievements partly thanks to her training sessions in the U.S., as well as her spirit and professional manner.

Singaporean swimming commentator Ang Peng Siong, who won a gold medal at the 1982 Asian Games in India, awarded Anh Vien the nickname of ‘the golden woman of the SEA Games.’

The Vietnamese swimmer is completely able to compete in Asian and world tournaments, Ang added.

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