​Call for coaching change on table after Vietnam’s top swimmer fails at Asian Games

Star swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, trained by the same coach in seven years, has seen her performance embark on a downward trend

Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Anh Vien competes in the women's 200m breaststroke in Malaysia.

Vietnam’s sports administrators believe it is time for the country’s top swimmer Nguyen Thi Anh Vien to bid farewell to the coach that has been with her over the last seven years, after the medal hopeful ended her 2018 Asian Gamesas (Asiad) campaign empty-handed.

Anh Vien has long been considered a ‘treasure’ for Vietnam’s swimming after her talent was discovered by coaches of a military team when she was only 11 years old.

The 1996-born swimmer has been training under the direct and sole guide of coach Dang Anh Tuan since 2011.

She has enjoyed a tall list of achievements under the coaching of Tuan until recently, when she repeatedly failed to be in her best form, particularly at the 2018 Asiad that ended earlier this month in Indonesia, where she failed to win any medal.

It is against this context that sports administrators and experts started to weigh in whether it is time for another coach to replace Tuan.

Rise of a star

At the age of 15, Anh Vien won ten gold medals in ten different events at the 2011 National Swimming Championship, before taking home two silvers at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Indonesia the same year.

Vien made her Olympics debut as the youngest athlete of Team Vietnam in London 2012, competing in the women’s 200m backstroke and 400m medley events.

At the 2013 SEA Games, Anh Vien continued to prove her talent by claiming six medals, including three golds, two silvers and one bronze, and broke two records in 200m backstroke and 400m medley.

At the 2014 Asian Games, Anh Vien won the bronze medals in the 200m backstroke and 400m individual medley categories. These were the first swimming medals Vietnam had ever won at the continental competition.

As of the end of 2014, Anh Vien held the Vietnam Records in 14 of 17 long-course individual events and was named the country's Athlete of the Year in both 2013 and 2014.

Anh Vien’s impressive achievement run did not end just there.

At the 2015 SEA Games, the then 19-year-old Vietnamese emerged as the best female athlete, bagging as many as eight gold medals, one silver and one bronze. This medal haul helped Vietnam secure the second place in swimming just behind host Singapore.

The national-record holding swimmer also swam for Vietnam at the 2016 Olympics, but she did not win any medal as she had done in her tournament debut four years earlier.

And the fall begins

Anh Vien’s steady decline started in the middle of 2017, when her performance was constantly falling behind her 2015-2016 peaks.

In her favorite stroke, the 400m medley, Anh Vien won the bronze medal at the 2014 Asiad in a record of 4:39.65, which was continuously improved to 4:38.78 at the 2015 World Championships and to 4:36.85 at the 2016 Olympic Games, so far still her personal best.

Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Anh Vien poses with her gold medal.
Vietnam's Nguyen Thi Anh Vien poses with her gold medal.

But just one year since Rio 2016, it took Anh Vien as long as 4:40.39 to swim the 400m individual medley at the 2017 World Championships. Her clocking continued to drop to 4:45.82 one month later, when Vien swam at the 2017 SEA Games.

In the Asiad 2018’s final, Anh Vien made a slight improvement, touching the wall after 4:42.81, but this was still more than six seconds slower than her best. In fact, this performance is her worst in the last five years in continental and world arenas.

Compared with the 400m medley category, Anh Vien’s performance in the 200m individual medley shows little difference.

Her achievements in this distance at the 2014 Asiad, the 2016 Olympic Games and the 2016 Asian Championships were on a straight decline - 2:20.99, 2:16.20, and 2:12.95, respectively.

Anh Vien even failed to make it to the 2018 Asiad’s 200m individual medley final, as it took her 2:19.79 to finish the qualifying round, way behind what she had achieved when she was 17 years old.

Anh Vien rose to fame with impressive achievements during her teenage years, and started to fall when she entered her 20s.

This is a stark contrast to the common path observed among her opponents, whose performances only turn for the better when they are 20-23 years old, considered the blooming period of swimmers.

For instance, Japan’s Yui Ohashi was only Anh Vien’s also-ran in the women’s 400m individual medley at the 2016 Asian Championships in 4:44.75, 5.97 seconds slower than the Vietnamese swimmer.

However, at the Games in Indonesia this year, the 22-year-old Japanese won the gold medal in 4:34.58, compared to 4:42.81 of Vien.

Depression goes unreported

During their training and preparation for the 2018 Asiad campaign, coach Tuan told the media that everything had been going well and the Vietnamese swimming star was ready to strike gold in Indonesia.

But it was not until the Vietnamese delegation was ready to leave for Indonesia that the coach admitted to the press that Anh Vien had by that point been suffering from depression for three months.

“Vien had to see a psychiatrist after failing to achieve good results at the 2017 SEA Games,” the coach said.

The information stunned the Vietnamese sports administrators, as none of the General Department of Sports and Physical Training, the military-run sports administration, and her direct manager had been informed of her situation.

Tuan would accompany Vien in all their state-funded training trips to the U.S. from 2012, with the coach required to make regular reports to sports administrators.

“And yet in all reports during these years, the coach has not once talked about his student’s illness,” Tran Duc Phan, deputy general director of the General Department of Sports and Physical Training, complained.

Nguyen Trong Toan, head of swimming and diving of the department, also said he was kept in the dark by Tuan about the health conditions of the star swimmer.

Colonel Nguyen Van Thang, who is in charge of military sports and physical training under the Ministry of Defense, said that when Anh Vien attended the Asiad 2018 in Indonesia, he met the female swimmer in person and noticed no strange signs from her.

“We did not hear anything about Anh Vien being depressed from her coach or the General Department of Sports and Physical Training,” Thang said.

“We were very worried about the performance of Anh Vien, which showed worsening signs and this issue certainly needs to be analyzed to find out its cause.”

Coach change needed

According to Phan, upon her disappointing Asiad campaign, Anh Vien returned to the U.S. for training on September 1 and the Vietnamese swimmer would continue to follow the 2018 training plan as scheduled, with Tuan still being her coach.

Since 2014, the General Department of Sports and Physical Training and the military sports administrators have co-funded Anh Vien’s long-term training under Tuan’s coaching in the U.S., which costs some VND4-5 billion (US$172,000-215,000) each year.

The government is willing to pay for those trips to develop Anh Vien into a top athlete that can win high prizes at Asian and global swimming tournaments, rather than only in Southeast Asia.

A swimming expert told Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper that letting the same coach teach a swimmer for seven to eight years will result in ‘saturation’ in emotion and training effectiveness for the athlete, which means she may hardly learn anything new from the coach, despite their long connection.

During their trips in the U.S., Vien was supposed to be trained with two American experts.

However, these two experts had never worked directly with Vien, and it was Tuan who took charge in everything, from training in the pool to cooking for the swimmer, according to Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper.

“It’s pointless to send a Vietnamese athlete to the U.S. only to have her trained by a Vietnamese coach,” the swimming expert told Tuoi Tre.

Previously, when asked about the idea of finding a new coach for Anh Vien at a press conference after the 2018 Asiad concluded, Phan agreed that “it’s necessary, we will consider the adjustment [of the coaching position].”

“We should not let Anh Vien continue to have poor performance in the upcoming 2019 SEA Games," Phan said.

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