Tran Khanh Linh of Vietnam performs during the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating's Free Skating at Ostravar Arena on September 3 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Photo of International Skating Union

Tran Khanh Linh is gliding gracefully through her routine -- landing jumps, nailing her favourite moves and doing layback spins -- she is dancing on the ice.

When Linh received a gold medal for her performance at the recent national championship, it made all the work and sacrifice worth it. Three perfect minutes on the ice at a competition brought her happiness she has not tasted for almost three years because of the COVID pandemic.

The 17-year-old is Vietnam's best figure skater with a dream of reaching the very top of the world. But getting there, of course, won't be all smiles.

No pain, no gain

Linh has loved figure skating since first seeing it on television when she was a young girl. It was not until she was nine years old that her dream came true when Hanoi had its first ice rink, and her parents allowed their daughter to practise the new sport.

"Figure skating is a beautiful artistic sport. It's a blend of many things: balance, strength and the fitness of a gymnast; the speed of a speed skater, and the flexibility, softness and elegance of a ballerina," Linh told Việt Nam News.

"Figure skating benefits your health and posture greatly, and improves your outlook. My favourite part is the thrill of doing techniques such as jumps and spins on the ice. It makes me feel free. I'm in love with the feeling of gliding, flowing and letting the classical music take me away."

Tran Khanh Linh of Vietnam performs during the ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating's Short Programme at Ostravar Arena on September 1 in Ostrava, Czech Republic. Photo of International Skating Union

Although the initial target was to help Linh get fitter, the family switched their decision, producing a national champion.

"After a short time of practising, Linh showed her talent. She was small but agile and flexible. She could handle difficult movements skillfully. I was told that not many girls of this age could do as well as her," Trinh Thi Trang, Linh's mother, said.

"We decided to move to a home near the ice rink and find coaches for her. Figure skating was very popular but novel in Vietnam then. It was challenging for Linh to learn and practise."

After two years of practising basic techniques, Linh flew to Australia in 2017 to practise with the famous Liudmila Kuznetsova, who had coached many successful athletes worldwide.

The Russian found Linh an athlete with special qualities -- light but thick-boned, with a flexible body and good jumping and spinning movements -- which were great for figure skating. She believed that the Vietnamese girl would go far.

Linh also practised with French Arnaud Muccini, coach of many world and Olympic champions, and four-time Ukrainian champion Vinichenko Eleonora. Both saw Linh's passion and determination, and dedicatedly improved her technique.

For Linh, it took hundreds of hours skating, dancing and conditioning off-ice, skipping a traditional school schedule, rehabbing through painful injuries, and frequently travelling to compete against another top talent. That was all to nail a programme that lasted less than five minutes.

BALLETIC GRACE: Besides her training programmes, Tran Khanh Linh takes ballet classes to make her posture and choreography beautiful. — Photo of courtesy of Tran Khanh Linh

"Because there is no local coach in Vietnam, I'm mainly self-trained and have a one-hour online lesson per week with my Russian coaches in Australia," said Linh. "This is difficult because of the limited visibility that prevents both sides from seeing each other. The coaches cannot advise directly."

"I also have three hours per week of ballet class, which helps improve my posture and choreography during my performance. Besides off-ice training, I also practise to enhance my fitness, endurance and flexibility," she said.

For her parents, it required years of careful budgeting and a six-figure price tag. The family had to cover everything without support, while figure skating is among the priciest sports. They paid the cost of coaching fees, travel expenses, choreography, ballet or ballroom dancing lessons, costumes and figure skates.

Best in Vietnam

Linh has grabbed a number of titles. Under the six-time national champion's belt were gold medals from the 2016 Asian championship's Open Free Style 4 and 2017 Cambodian Figure Skating Championship's Elementary; a silver from the 2018 Indonesian Figure Skating Championship's Intermediate Novice Ladies; a silver from the 2018 Macquarie Ice Skating Club Championships, and gold from the 2019 Sydney Figure Skating Club Trophy Night.

Like other skaters, Linh is required to train on and off the ice five to six days a week to enhance flexibility, balance, coordination, power, and endurance. — Photo of courtesy of Tran Khanh Linh

At the age of 15, Linh was listed as a Vietnamese athlete at the 2017 SEA Games but was dropped at the last minute because of her young age.

Linh was the only Vietnamese qualified to compete in the ISU Junior Grand Prix twice, in Russia in 2019 and last month in the Czech Republic.

"I dream of being a Vietnamese representative at international competitions. However, it will be a tough job. In the current poor training conditions, my progress is not enough to qualify for big events," said Linh, who is waiting for a SEA Games with figure skating as an official sport.

"I know I will have to make more effort and work harder. More importantly, I need suitable training conditions and an environment with adequate training facilities such as an Olympic-sized ice rink with a good ice surface, equipment for on- and off-ice training and an offline quality coach," said Linh.

Mai Khac Tho, deputy general secretary of the Vietnam Figure Skating Federation, said: "Linh is a talented and potential athlete for Vietnam.

Tran Khanh Linh poses with her sixth national championship gold medal and trophy on October 2 in Hanoi. Photo of courtesy of Tran Khanh Linh

"She is a hardworking and determined skater, confident and energetic on the rink. She always does her best for our national pride."

He said that the federation had limited funds, supported mainly through socialised funds and donations from athletes' parents, and faced challenges in inviting foreign coaches to work for a long time in Vietnam.

For Linh to improve her ability, she will have to practise with foreign skaters in short courses in Vietnam and join international training programmes in the near future. The future looks bright for this young figure skater. 

Source: Vietnam News