At the ripe old age of 28, time is running out for swimmer Hoang Quy Phuoc to continue competing at the elite level, but he promises to give his all for himself and his country at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Vietnam at the end of the year.
|EYES ON THE PRIZE: Hoang Quy Phuoc is training hard in preparation for the Olympics and SEA Games this year. Photo thethao.sggp.org.vn|
The Da Nang-born athlete has been national champion for many years and proved his talent yet again at the recent national short course swimming championships, winning six gold, four silver, and one bronze medal.
As Vietnam is host of the 31st SEA Games, Phuoc aims to shine on his “home ground”, but before that are Olympic qualifiers in May and the Olympics themselves in Tokyo shortly after, presuming they go ahead.
‘Otter of Han River’
Phuoc lives just 200 metres away from Da Nang’s famed My Khe Beach and has been swimming since he was just a little boy. His talent was discovered at a swim meet for primary school students in 2004.
Hardworking and keen to listen, his coaches appreciated his attitude and effort and he made rapid progress as he grew older.
He was called into the national youth team in 2006 when he was 13, and a year later was part of the national team.
At 15, Phuoc stood 1.78 metres tall and boasted an arm span of 1.93m and long fingers, which are considered ideal characteristics for a swimmer.
He had a remarkable 2008, winning 10 gold medals at the ASEAN Swimming Age Championship and ASEAN Swimming Clubs Championship. And he was the youngest swimmer to set national records.
Phuoc was a member of the Vietnam swim team at the 25th SEA Games in Laos in 2009 and won a bronze in the 100m butterfly.
“Despite only finishing third it’s still one of my fondest memories,” he told Việt Nam News. “My coach was happy with the bronze and so was I.”
The boy grew up quickly and the medals continued to come, including nine golds accompanied by nine new records in the short-course pool at the sixth National Sports Games, and 13 titles and 13 records at the national championships in 2010. He was dubbed the “Otter of Han River”, which cuts through his hometown.
At the time, the General Secretary of the Vietnam Aquatic Sports Association, Dinh Viet Hung, praised Phuoc’s competitiveness and predicted he would be a star in Vietnam and the region. And he was right.
|HOME HIGH: Phuoc targets gold at the upcoming SEA Games in Vietnam. Photo webthethao.vn|
At his next Games, it was only gold medals that hung around his neck. He took two in the 100m freestyle and butterfly and also set up a Games record of 53.07 in the latter, which remains a national record to this day.
It was the first time a Vietnamese swimmer had picked up two golds in the SEA Games. His efforts also saw him qualify in the B standard for the London Olympics in 2012. Despite being the first Vietnamese swimmer to reach such heights, though, his B standard ended up not being enough to get him to London.
He then continued to shine at the next four SEA Games, winning two gold, eight silver, and three bronze medals together with setting a Games record in the 200m freestyle.
Sandwiched between his SEA Games medals was a gold in the 100m freestyle at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2013 in South Korea.
His results, however, have begun to slip, and at the last SEA Games, in the Philippines two years ago, his medal colours consisted of only silver and bronze.
He attributes his poor results to injuries, new coaches, and changes in training locations.
“That has been my biggest regret,” he lamented. “If I had received proper support and had good coaches and good training facilities, I would have done much better.”
Nguyen Hong Minh, former Vietnamese chef de mission at many SEA Games, agreed.
“Phuoc has been a really talented swimmer with the perfect physique and an iron will,” he said.
“His talent was clear when was 15 or 16. And he has contributed a great deal to his hometown of Da Nang and also to Vietnam. But for many different reasons, we wasted his talent.”
Phuoc understood his situation, but continuing his swimming career was soon to become even more of a struggle.
In 2020, when COVID-19 first cast a shadow over the world, Da Nang became one of Vietnam’s hot spots. Social distancing kept everyone, including world-class swimmers, away from their daily routines.
“My teammates and I weren’t allowed to swim for six weeks,” Phuoc said.
“Our living quarters were literally just a few steps away from the pool, but it may as well have been much further. We were only able to work out in the gym.
“For swimmers, nothing is worse than being away from the water. I was bored and a little concerned, as while I couldn’t swim my competitors in other provinces could. But then, as a senior member of the team, I realised I had to set a positive example for my younger teammates.”
Despite the travails of 2020, he still managed to pick up four golds at the national championships in July.
“Those four gold medals are worth more than actual gold as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “They will always be a special part of my career, when sheer hard work led to success.”
|TRIUMPH: Phuoc celebrates his win in the 28th SEA Games’ 200m freestyle. Photo binhthuansports.vn|
While 2021 still sees many countries fighting COVID-19, it has been largely brought under control in Vietnam. And Phuoc has been working hard in the pool. Apart from medals, he also set three national records in the men’s 100m, 4x100 freestyle relay, and 4x200 freestyle relay.
His eyes are now firmly set on international events.
He will have a shot at winning a place in the Olympic team at the National Age Group Swimming Championship in HCM City next month, which is considered an Olympic qualifier.
“Honestly, it will be difficult to reach the A standard even though I’m swimming on home turf,” he explained. “All of the standards will change, but all I can do is to continue to train. And I’m targeting gold at the SEA Games, as despite everything I still have a passion for swimming.”
“I know it will be difficult, as many younger athletes are now the rising stars. I will do my best at these SEA Games, as they may well be my last. My big chance is probably in the 100m freestyle. I will be swimming not only for victory but also for personal honour.”
Vietnamese swimmers will have A chance to earn their Olympics slots this May.