ASEAN's 'king' of middle-distance running Duong Van Thai out in front, as usual. Photo webthethao.vn

The tears of happiness flowed as Duong Van Thai had proven himself capable of carrying on Vietnam’s dominance in the men’s middle distance events in Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in Indonesia in 2011.

The gold in the 800m capped his debut in the regional biennial sporting event.

Nearly a decade on, Thai is still seeking a worthy opponent in not only the 800m but also the 1,500m.

Born in the rural district of Nam Truc in Nam Dinh Province, like many boys his age, Thai spent his childhood in the rice fields after school.

The turning point came when he was in the ninth grade when he won a local running competition.

This success prompted Nam Dinh’s Sports Training Centre scouts to ask his parents to allow him to train as an athlete.

In 2006, at the age of 14, Thai left home to start a new chapter in his life.

“The new environment was strange to me. I did what I wanted at home but at the training centre, I had to follow strict discipline. It was hard for me,” Thai said about his first days of training.

“But it was nothing compared to the exercises to improve my physique. Sometimes, I could not breathe after a training session. I was so tired that I couldn't eat and thought of giving up,” said Thai, who began seeing the results of the training just a few months in.

His coach in Nam Dinh, Vu Ngoc Loi who is now the national team coach, said Thai was thin but had good inner fortitude which helped him quickly improve his physique and endurance, vital factors for middle-distance runners.

“He is hardworking and eager to find and learn new things. I was not surprised when he made long steps in his career,” said Loi about Thai’s gold medal and record at the National Sports Games in 2008 after a year of training.

He became a member of the national junior team and in 2010 he joined the national team in Hanoi under Tam, who appreciated his dedication.

Thai keeps a strict timetable with two training sessions per day and doesn't drink alcohol.

“It helps me stay strong and be ready for any tournament,” he said.

In 2011, Thai was named in the Vietnam sports delegation for the 26th SEA Games in Indonesia after winning the national championship.

In Jakarta, the 19-year-old made a bang when finishing first in the 800m with a time of 1min 49.42sec. His result was a new national record, beating the old one of 1:49.81 by Le Van Duong set in 2004.

Two years later in Myanmar, he secured gold in the 1,500m.

In the 2015 and 2017 Games, Thai won both the 800m and 1,500m.

At last December’s Manila Games, he was pushed hard by a naturalised athlete of the Philippines in the 800m.

American Carter James Matheus Lilly was ‘imported’ to take gold in this event for the hosts.

He quickly took the lead in the first 400m while Thai was in the middle of the following group.

The defending champion then sped up in the last 100m, passing all participants to reach Lilly who was heading to the finish line alone.

Thai sped up though and passed Lilly at the end to make for a thrilling finish. He won with a time of 1:49.91, marking his seasonal best and only 0.26sec faster than Lilly.

“I didn't really think I could win this event because there are strong rivals, especially Lilly,” Thai said after winning.

“But the good mood after my triumph in the 1,500m the previous day together with great tactics helped me do my job.”

The runner competes for more than his ego though.

“My every step is not only to beat my rivals but also to help my family,” said Thai whose parents are still impoverished farmers.

“In all competitions, I always run the best I can. I help my family live better now. But I still run with the same motto, run for my family behind,” said Thai.

Duong Van Thai (left) passes James Matheus Lilly to win the men's 800m event at the 30th SEA Games last December. Photo nld.com.vn

Winning eight golds including three doubles in five SEA Games, Thai sits atop ASEAN in this sport.

His coach Tam said he now should look to higher-level competitions and it's time to seek Asian medals and even a berth at the Olympics. VNS

SEA Games 30: Vietnam wins 80 golds after nine days

SEA Games 30: Vietnam wins 80 golds after nine days

The Vietnamese sports delegation won a total of 14 gold medals on December 9, the ninth competition day of the ongoing 30th SEA Games in the Philippines, bringing the total to 80 so far, surpassing the target of 65.