HÀ NỘI — When she won the Asian championship title in 2018, Trương Thị Kim Tuyền dreamed an Olympic dream.
Three years later, the fighter made it and has qualified for the Tokyo Games this summer, bringing Vietnamese taekwondo back onto the world’s biggest stage after nearly a decade.
In the Asian qualifiers last month, Tuyền, one of two Vietnamese representatives, defeated three rivals to become one of two finalists in the women’s 49kg category. It was enough for her to clinch an Olympic slot.
“I am really happy with this result. It’s deserving after my labour for many years. It is a big thanks to my coaches and friends who strongly support me,” said the 24-year-old.
Rural girl who fights
Born in 1997 in the southern province of Vĩnh Long’s Long Hồ District, Tuyền has been practising taekwondo for 10 years.
Tuyền is the youngest in a four-member family that earns a living through rambutan and rice farming.
While all of her siblings, who are much older than her, have to work to help their parents, Tuyền was asked to focus on her studies.
One day when his youngest daughter said she wanted to try martial arts, her father Trương Văn Hạt agreed to the strange and expensive request.
Tuyền was encouraged to try taekwondo as her father believed that the protective gear would prevent his daughter from suffering injuries.
Her passion and talent made Tuyền, who has speed, strength, accuracy and a tactical mind, an outstanding trainee at her club.
After many years scouting for the provincial sports department, coach Lê Trần Thùy Trân understood that she had found a “treasure”.
“Her parents did not agree when I talked about bringing Tuyền to the province’s training centre to be a professional athlete. I told them Tuyền was a talent and she had potential to be a big athlete in the future,” Trân recalled.
“I had to come back again and again, persuading and analysing a lot before receiving their approval. It was great that she proved herself with a gold medal at the Mekong Delta regional championship and another at the national youth tournament in the first year,” she said.
The 14-year-old was immediately elevated to the national team which meant Trân had to go back to Hạt for permission again.
“It was not simple as at the provincial centre where she could return home at the weekend. Being a national team member means she would leave her parents and live an independent life,” said Trân who then sent Tuyền to Đà Nẵng’s National Sports Training Centre 3.
The day Tuyền left was the first time that both she and her parents saw an aeroplane at HCM City’s Tân Sơn Nhất Airport. But since then, flights have been part of her life with competitions around the world.
Tears fell when Tuyền flew away but a bright future was waiting for her.
The unbeaten girl dominated not only the national tournament but also the Southeast Asian Games as she won the regional competition’s 46kg class in her debut in 2015 at the age of 18.
Months later she took an international title and was voted the best athlete at the Morocco Open which is one of the most prestigious events in taekwondo.
She also pocketed titles from the Asian youth championship and a bronze from the Asian championship in 2016.
Her success left Tuyền self-satisfied. Five months after her triumph in Morocco, Tuyền was defeated in the semi-finals of the Olympics’ qualification Asian zone, meaning she missed out on a spot at the 2016 Rio Games, as only two fighters from the tournament qualified.
Fortunately, she used the loss to rebound in 2017 and brought home six medals from international competitions, including a silver from the world championship in South Korea.
The silver was a milestone point as the first world level medal in history for Vietnamese taekwondo .
In 2019, Tuyền grabbed titles from the ASEAN Open, Greece Open and Serbia Open. Her performance at the Grand Prix Moscow 2019 did not help put her in the top three but she showed her advanced technique before losing 11-9 to world champion Sim Jae-young who was born in South Korea, the centre of the taekwondo world.
According to Nguyễn Lê Dung, head of Vĩnh Long Sports and Culture Department’s Taekwondo Section, Tuyền is a star of the province and national sport and has more success ahead of her.
2020 saw most tournaments cancelled or postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuyền could not enjoy her usual intensive training courses or international competitions. She feared missing the Olympics again as the Asian qualification event in Jordan in May was the last chance for Việt Nam.
But Tuyền performed spectacularly to be a finalist in her class to take an Olympic slot but also beat Su Po-ya of Chinese Taipei in the final to win gold.
It is her first time at the competition and Việt Nam’s fifth time sending a taekwondo athlete.
The world No 13 Tuyền is now in Lebanon for the Asian championship which will be her final test ahead of Tokyo in July.
Tuyền is hoped to bring Việt Nam another medal after her Trần Hiếu Ngân’s silver at the Sydney Olympics 21 years ago.
“The first SEA Games title strengthened my belief with the martial art. The world silver medal was the most memorable result as it was my first time at the worlds. The Olympic berth is my dream,” said Tuyền.
“As an athlete, everyone hopes to be an Olympian once in their life. Me too. I will work harder for that and even harder for a medal,” said Tuyền. — VNS