The Golden Girl of Vietnam Prepares for Rio

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Phan Thi Ha Thanh was surprised and proud to be shortlisted as one of 20 candidates up for the Young Faces of Vietnam profile series this year. The reigning Asian Games runner-up said that the honor was a motivation to reach her competitive goals and to achieve success at the 2016 Olympic Games this summer.

Born into a family that had no other athletes and didn’t put a big focus on sports, Phan found gymnastics by coincidence when coach Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy noticed the six-year-old at school. Her mother was reluctant to put her in the sport because they were a busy family and she didn’t think they could make it work, but she saw right away that Phan took to the sport and had discovered her passion.

She trained constantly, working out at home when she couldn’t get to the gym, and her efforts helped her get attention from the national program after only a few years of training in Haiphong. At this point, Phan was invited to train in Hanoi, a great distance from her family whom she could only visit a few times a year. It was difficult getting used to living independently, but her mother would send her treats to keep her from getting homesick.

A glamorous sport on the outside, training in the sport can be brutal. Floor, beam, vault, bars…Phan saw most of her young teammates get frustrated early on with many giving up because they couldn’t withstand the strenuous nature of the sport.

“At first, I often wanted to fake a stomachache to get out of it. But gradually, I realized that the older girls worked very hard and knew I had to do that to reach their level,” Phan said.

Phan toughened up quickly thanks to her bravery and determination. Through her time away from home and going to training camps in China, Phan became incredibly self-disciplined and realized she had an amazing iron will. She became well-respected by her teammates as the gymnast who would rise up as the leader during the most difficult moments.

“Phan is a private person, very self-disciplined, and she’s always coming up with her own training plans or quietly practicing on bars even during breaks,” remarked coach Nguyen. “After years of coaching, I haven’t come across many athletes like her. Sometimes when gymnasts are given criticism, they tire of the sport and quit. But Phan, when she is scolded or given notes, she listens quietly and takes it all in. Her technique grew quickly and she became very sure of herself as a competitor.”

And the results have been great for the little girl from Haiphong. After winning the gold medal at the national sports festival at age 11 in 2002, she went on to win her first international medal with a bronze at the 2005 Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines when she was just 14. After that, Phan was expected to become the backbone of the Vietnamese program in the future and it took her only two years to reach the pinnacle of her young career — at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games in Thailand, Phan won her first gold.

Not stopping there, at the Asian Championships in 2009, Phan won the first bronze medal for Vietnam. In 2010, Phan won three national gold medals before reaching another feat for Vietnam with two silver medals at the World Cup in Portugal. But the most brilliant achievement of her career was the world championships bronze medal she won in Japan in 2011. This was the first time in history that Vietnamese gymnastics had achieved a medal at worlds.

“It’s been a lot of hard work,” says the coach who discovered her and trained her from childhood. “I have never seen an athlete with Phan’s energy, passion, and commitment. To me, Phan is always number one.”

Phan Thi Ha Thanh traveled from Vietnam at the end of March to train at the Alamo Gymnastics Center in San Antonio, Texas and will compete at the Test Event in Rio this Sunday, where she hopes to earn a spot at what will be her second Olympic Games.

What has been the milestone of your career?

For me, definitely the vault medal at world championships in 2011. That surpassed my expectations and set the bar. It helped me have enough confidence and motivation to strive to improve and put myself on par with the world’s best gymnasts, at least on vault. Frankly, before that, both myself and the Vietnamese gymnastics federation didn’t think I could win a medal in Asia, let alone in the world.

What is the secret of your success?

Passion and hard work. I started gymnastics when I was six and have been doing it for 19 years. I understood early on that compared to some gymnasts even in Vietnam, let alone internationally, I was less naturally gifted and had to compensate with hard work.

Even with the inevitable sorrow or disappointments when I’ve been injured or failed to win a competition or earn a medal, there was nothing that discouraged me. There have been times where I’ve had to stop training for months or even years, especially on vault. But I’m always determined to come back and when I do well, it’s great when your efforts finally pay off.

Can you tell us about your immediate future and beyond? Is an Olympic medal something you’ve thought about?

I’m already 25, which is old for a tough sport like gymnastics, but I am determined to try to continue training for at least one more year. Initially, I’ll focus completely on my goal of winning a medal at the Olympics this year. It’s a dream, it could be too difficult, and I only have a few months to improve. In the long term, I want to make sure I stick with gymnastics, only with a different role. I want to coach. Gymnastics in one way or another is my destiny.

In your opinion, what needs to happen for Vietnamese gymnastics to take off?

Gymnastics has excellent potential to be a breakthrough trend at every level, from beginners to the elite level. The priority has been training the national team gymnasts to be at their best for international competitions, and they’ve hired many high-quality foreign experts, but I think conditions need to improve in terms of the facilities, equipment, and apparatuses, and also think there needs to be better nutrition and healthcare specific to the sport.

I hope gymnastics will receive more recognition in the future. The conditions here in Vietnam are very promising, but aside from those of us on the national team who are the backbone of the program, at a fundamental level gymnastics doesn’t have as much support compared to other sports.

Article by Lauren Hopkins

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4 thoughts on “The Golden Girl of Vietnam Prepares for Rio

  1. This is great, thank you Lauren! I always like Phan but I never knew much about her background. Hope she is able to make it to Rio and to vault finals.

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  2. Great to see you do an article on gymnasts from lesser known countries. It’s also great that she had a chance to visit a US gym for some training and coaching… The US has so many good gyms at grass root level and opportunities that’s not available to others. So its really great that some of these expertises are avail to those less fortunate…. Now I wish Romania would have sent their team over here for some bars training…maybe that might have helped them a lil?

    From what I’ve read from your post, I take it that Phan has a pretty good chance of making it?

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    • Romanias problem at this point has stretched far beyond bars. Their entire structure is crumbling. Beam was an event where they could easily get three 15s if hit just two years ago. Now their marquee event gets them a mid 14 at highest, maybe a 15 if iordache successfully recovers, which she should since its only a finger, but any injury affects confidence. Not to mention the fact that their floor has deteriorated greatly. Their strongest event is now vault, but even that is messy. I think they have fantastic juniors, but they have always had amazing juniors. Their current problem is partially due to their juniors unsuccessfully transitioning to senior.

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  3. Great article Lauren! I’ve seen write-ups on Phan, but never knew her background. Tremendous sacrifices on her part and by her family. The Vietnamese culture does not support athletic programs like the American culture. Taking a girl to gymnastics practice in Vietnam is not like taking an American girl to soccer practice in the U.S. Our daughter is a mix – me, caucasian, and my wife is Vietnamese. Our 9 yr old daughter is in an excellent gymnastics program and is doing very well. Her success is not just because of the excellent facilities and coaching, but also because of her own determination and will to get to the next level. Reading your article on Phan is so refreshing because she had to initially train so far away from home. She had to overcome many fears and obstacles to get where she is today. Things as simple as what you eat for breakfast and lunch – and the nutritional value/protein included in each meal are so unbelievably important. Phan is such a great role model for so many young gymnasts in Vietnam and all over the world! Our daughter is training 27+ hrs a week in a very competitive program. We are amazed at the level of dedication of such young girls. It is our desire to work to improve the facilities, equipment and training in my wife’s home country – Vietnam – to allow other talented girls like Phan have the opportunity to train in the wonderful sport of gymnastics. Girls like Phan broke through barriers by her will and determination. She will continue to be an inspiration for girls in her country and throughout the world for years to come.

    Two weeks ago we hosted four Japanese gymnasts and their two coaches at our house. They trained at our daughter’s gym to get the experience of training at a excellent American gymnastics facility. It was a special experience for the Japanese gymnasts and our daughter to get a glimpse of gymnastics outside their respective comfort zones. We would love to do a similar hosting for Vietnamese gymnasts in the future.

    Finally, a tremendous amount of thanks is owed to coach Nguyen Thi Thanh Thuy for recognizing the potential in Phan at the age of 6. Coach Thuy started the spark and undoubtedly spent hours every day/week, over the course of years making Phan believe in herself. Few folks ever give thanks to these very special coaches – but Coach Thuy deserves a huge thanks for making a young 6 yr old girl believe in herself! Best of luck to Phan as we approach Rio!!

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