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The path from poor, young Vietnamese woman to world-class boxer

The path from poor, young Vietnamese woman to world-class boxer

Friday, April 07, 2023, 13:47 GMT+7
The path from poor, young Vietnamese woman to world-class boxer

Nguyen Thi Tam, a resident of the rural northern province of Thai Binh, put Vietnam on the world map of women’s boxing sports by securing the right to compete in the 2023 IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, which was held on March 15-26.

Tam scored her first resounding victory with a score of 5-0 against her opponent Kyzaibay Nazym of Kazakhstan, the former world champion of 2014 and 2016 at the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships, and the former Asian champion of 2021.

Tam later cruised to two absolute victories before a 4-1 win over boxer Lkhadiri Wassila, a former seven-time French boxing champion who has won two bronze medals in European competitions, in the semifinals.

Vietnam's best performance so far in the history of world boxing competitions is Nguyen Thi Huong's bronze medal in the women's 81 kg weight category in 2019.

No worthy opponents in her own country

Nguyen Thi Tam, 29, is a good fighter in the flyweight category (50-52 kg). She is known for an active fighting style with a combination of defense and counterattack.

Speed in throwing punches is considered her weakness compared to many opponents, however, she has the advantage of body size and long arms, as well as powerful punches in counterattack.

Since 2017, the young woman has become one of the leading athletes in Vietnamese boxing after winning gold medals at the national level, Asian level and at  Asiade 2018.

Tam had no challenges left, meaning she had no worthy opponents in the flyweight category in national boxing competitions.

She won gold medals in national boxing championship five years in a row (2017-2021) and two more gold medals in two consecutive events of national sports festival (2018 and 2022).

With no suitable opponents for her training, Tam got into such an embarrassing situation that she almost missed the chance to compete in the 2020 Olympic Games.

Since there were no female teammates at the time, Tam had to train with Hanoi's male U17 boxing team and kickboxing to brush up her skills and gain experience with opponents. 

At one point, Tam was injured on her nose by a punch from a sparring partner during practice.

The accident caused Nguyen Nhu Cuong, who was her coach at the time, to think that she might miss the chance to participate in the Olympics as a result.

However, thanks to this intensive training period, Tam had a really successful year in her career in 2022 on the world stage.

She won many prestigious awards that year, including the gold medal at the Thailand Open International Tournament and consecutive gold medals at the SEA Games. 

Such great achievements help Nguyen Thi Tam secure the first place in the Boxrec index of the world's best female boxing amateurs in the flyweight category.

According to the website's statistics, she has won 24 fights, lost 5 and drawn 0.

Special connection to sports

Tam was born as the second child of a poor family in Quynh My Commune, Quynh Phu District, northern Thai Binh Province. 

Although there is no one in her family who is enthusiastic about sports, Tam seems to have a special passion and potential talent for various sports such as volleyball, basketball and table tennis since she attended elementary school. She was even named to the Vietnam People's Security athletics team.

The exhausting sports career forced Tam to decide to leave athletics. At that time, the coaches of the Hanoi boxing team fortunately discovered that Tam had the potential to become a professional boxer.

"At first, when I saw how hard the older teammates were training, throwing punches and kicks, I was so desperate to give up," Tam recalled.

"But the coaches encouraged me to keep going and stay on the team," she recalled the breakthrough in her career.

Tam gained much more fighting experience and strength in 2016 and 2017 before she had no worthy opponent nationwide.

When she was announced as a bitter loser in the final match of boxing at Let’s Viet 2016, Tam and her coach Nguyen Nhu Cuong left the hall in tears.

The next day, Tam submitted a request to leave the team.

Her coaches tried to persuade her to train for another year. They said if she could not win then, it still would not be too late for her to leave the team.

She was persuaded and devoted herself to days of hard and diligent training, so-called days of "rice mixed with tears" in 2017, before winning the championship in the 51-kilogram category at the national boxing championship for the first time.

She was then called up to the national boxing team and brilliantly secured the Asian gold medal.

Despite her many prestigious achievements, Tam had to deal with nasty rumors that said she only got big prizes by luck.

She overcame such challenges by achieving more impressive wins. 

Before the final bout of SEA Games 30 against the host country Philippines' boxer, Tam had a problem: the organizers had not arranged a vehicle to take Tam to the gym. As a result, coach Nguyen Nhu Cuong rushed to rent a car for her.

On the way to the gymnasium, he helped the student wrap wristbands. When they arrived at the hall, there was just enough time for Tam to put on the gloves and get into the boxing ring.

Nguyen Thi Tam said she was shy in life and rarely told others she was a boxer. Photo: FBNV
Nguyen Thi Tam said she was shy in life and rarely told others she was a boxer. Photo: FBNV

A US$100 loan to support parents

"I never thought of becoming a famous boxer. I just think that whatever I do, I will always do my best to earn enough money to finance my life and also help my family," the top Vietnamese boxer told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper after securing the number one spot among Vietnamese boxers and the top spot in the world rankings.

Such thoughts stem from her poor, hard childhood, when poverty divided the family members. With her father working as a laborer in construction and her mother planting rice seedlings as a hired hand, Tam's siblings also had to live far apart.

One particular story occurred in 2010, when Tam was just starting boxing and earning a few hundred dong per month. Thinking so much about her parents' poverty, Tam finally dared to borrow VND2 million ($85,23) from her trainer to buy a breeding pig, hoping that raising the pig would help them stop having to travel so much to earn a living as usual.

Thank you to the small amount of money and the breeding pig, her family has 7-8 breeding pigs to date to expand their animal husbandry.

Currently, Tam works as a contract member of Hanoi city's boxing team and receives an allowance of VND180,000 ($7.67) per day in addition to her salary of VND5 million ($213.08).

If she is invited to join the national boxing team, she will receive a higher allowance of VND270,000 ($11.51) per day.

In 2019, Tam missed the chance to join the Hanoi team as a regular member since she was still two months away from graduating college at that time, which means she was not eligible for review. 

Therefore, she is still a contract athlete even though she has been pursuing her boxing career for more than ten years. This is very unfortunate for her because the best female boxer has always focused on putting Vietnam on the world boxing map and to the Olympics instead of using boxing matches to get more money for herself.

"I am happy about what I have achieved, but I am also worried about whether I would be in on the team's payroll when I retire and having a steady job to support my life," Tam said.

"Aside from boxing, I am very business-minded. I once dreamed of running a restaurant because I love to cook.

"I can cook so many dishes, I especially like Vietnamese duck braised with dracontomelon hotpot and Thai hotpot," added the boxer, who was born in 1994.

Nguyen Thi Tam yet to secure a spot at 2024 Olympics

Due to financial and administrative problems of the International Boxing Federation (IBA), the International Olympic Committee (IOC) issued new guidelines in June 2022 to secure the rights to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Accordingly, as of February 2023, IBA and the IOC have still not agreed that the IBA Women's World Boxing Championships will be among the tournaments whose partakers can be granted official rights to participate in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

According to the new IOC guidelines, in addition to the two required qualifying rounds, the best performances of female boxers at the continental championships will also be taken into account for participation in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

So, to get an official right to participate in the 2024 Olympics, Tam must reach the final fight in her weight class at the Hangzhou Asian Games in September this year.

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Kim Thoa - Hoang Tung / Tuoi Tre News

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