Hard-knock life for gymnasts

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Young Vietnamese gymnasts from poverty-stricken backgrounds find out that gold medals don't pay the bills


Dinh Phuong Thanh (L) and Van Anh proud with gold medals they won at the Southeast Asian Student Gymnasium Competition that ended in Singapore on July 7

Not all members of the victorious Vietnamese gymnastics team were ecstatic upon their return from a recent contest in which they won eight gold medals.

Though 14-year-old Do Thi Van Anh had won a gold medal as the youngest member of her team, the tears in her eyes as she disembarked the plane were not tears of joy, but of sadness.

As her teammates rushed into their family members' embraces, reality sunk in: none of Van Anh's relatives all poor and far away had been able to greet her upon her triumphant return.

The sight revealed that Anh, though an international-class athlete who competes under back-breaking and sometimes mind-breaking pressure, was still a child, and just as fragile as any young teenager.

She had won the gold medal in the vault event and the bronze medal in the all-round performances at the competition that ended July 7. The accomplishments had been a long-time coming for the young girl, who still wears an innocent smile on her face that betrays her difficult childhood.

Van Anh was 4 years old when her family moved to Hanoi from Mong Cai, a border town with a seedy reputation near China in the northern province of Quang Ninh. Her mother was a sidewalk fruit vendor while her father sold produce around town on his pushcart.

Van Anh's mother, Cung Thi Van Kieu, said the family was relieved when Quan Ngua, a school for the athletically gifted in Hanoi, offered to train her daughter. She said until that time, the family had struggled to feed itself and keep Anh healthy.

"We were very poor and Van Anh was very little," she said. "We agreed [to let her train at Quan Ngua] because we thought it would keep her fit and healthy. We didn't care what kind of sport it was."

Then, in 2004, the school sent her to China for intensive training as Van Anh just finished the first semester of the first grade.

When she spoke to Thanh Nien, the young and otherwise sweet Van Anh's hands were rough and hardened from years of training.

"At first, I fell and hurt myself a lot. It was so painful, and then once I finished practice, I had to do all my own cleaning and laundry. But I got used to it later. Now, my hands are full of calluses and I don't feel pain anymore."

After 10 years of practice, the once timid girl has now turned into a tough teenager. She is confident, but also saddened that after big events her friends from the team can all travel home for the weekend while she doesn't have enough money to do so.

Dinh Phuong Thanh is a thin, quiet boy with similar problems. At a glance, it's a bit hard to believe that he's been winning gold medals as a gymnast for 10 years.

He says his teammates even tease him a bit.

"My team calls me bald Thanh because I have little hair on my head," Thanh said with a bright look in his eyes.

Thanh's mother Pham Thi Tham lamented her son's poor upbringing.

"We were very poor. We had only one bicycle. It was fixed to a cart with which my husband carried passengers to make a living. Whenever my husband took Thanh to school, he removed the cart from the bike".

When Thanh got injured during practice, his parents had to run around town borrow money for treatment.

"We didn't have a house and had to stay with my mother. Almost 10 people shared a place of 24m2. We were so discouraged and asked Thanh to stop practicing gymnastics, but he was determined not to give up, so we let him go on", Tham said.

Thanh was sent to China for intensive training when he was

7 years old. He was so small that his heavy backpack made him fall over. But he said he persevered to please his parents and trainers, and he has since won medal after medal.

At the competition in Singapore last week, Thanh won the gold medal in the individual parallel bar event and the silver medal in the team category.

Now, he is a student at the Hanoi Physical Training and Sports School. He practices at the training center during the day and has his school lessons in the evenings. Sometimes, he doesn't have time for dinner.

But Thanh remains optimistic.

"I hope to win more medals and qualify for the Olympic Games at least once. My parents are old now. I want to make my own living and support my family."

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