Tuesday 22 October 2019

Rising Ireland star Nguyen has eyes only for top prize

Nhat Nguyen on his way to beating Kettiya Keoxay of Laos in the first round of the badminton men’s singles at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires yesterday. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Nhat Nguyen on his way to beating Kettiya Keoxay of Laos in the first round of the badminton men’s singles at the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires yesterday. Photo by Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Cliona Foley

Any European medal, no matter what the colour or age group, is usually loudly celebrated in Ireland.

Yet Nhat Nguyen was seriously disappointed to only win bronze in badminton's European Junior Championships two weeks ago.

He was "the number one seed" he points out, so should have won gold, not lost to France's Christo Popov in a three-set semi-final.

He doesn't express it quite as vehemently as Paddy Barne's famous "bronze is for losers" quote in Beijing 2008, but his disappointment is raw enough to underline the talent, ambition and candour possessed by one of Ireland's rising talents.

Nguyen (pronounced Wee-en) is disarmingly open about everything.

He was competing in Bulgaria this summer when his Leaving Cert results came out, so his sister Tham was dispatched to St David's CBS in Artane to get the envelope.

"I actually passed everything, which was nice. I'm not gonna lie, school was never my priority, I never did any homework," he chuckles.

You imagine his teachers were eventually charmed into submission by his winning smile, bubbly personality and repeated conviction that all he ever wanted to be is a professional badminton player.

Truth is, he is already well on his way, even though he's only turned 18.

Already a two-time Irish senior champion and the European U-17 champion (and a doubles bronze medallist) in 2016, Nguyen got his first sponsor when he was just 14 and is already contracted to his sport's biggest brand (Yonex).

His final year of school included travelling to Germany for 10 weekends to play for a club in Cologne who covered all his expenses, flights, food and accommodation.

While in school he was already training like a pro: Up by 6am for a session in the National Badminton Centre in Marino before first class and immediately back there for another two-hour session after the final bell.

The Magees, Chloe and Sam, and Scott Evans have already blazed a trail for Ireland through badminton's pro ranks and Nguyen is ready to carry the torch.

His Vietnamese parents moved to Ireland, from near Hanoi, in 2006, when he was just six. He hadn't a word of English and mostly remembers the cold "because it was around Christmas".

He reached the quarter-finals of World Juniors in 2017 and is currently ranked fourth in the world at that age group. In his first year competing at adult level he got as low as 70th in the world senior rankings and is currently just inside the top 100 (94th).

That is a significant breakthrough because, come the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a top-70 ranking will earn Ireland an Olympic spot.

With school finished, Nguyen is training full-time in Marino, sometimes three times a day.

He is funded and supported by the Sport Ireland Institute and is also one of a dozen young Irish athletes receiving an Olympic Solidarity scholarship.

Training sometimes includes skipping, and he points out: "In badminton you have to be light on your feet, like boxers, because it involves a lot of lunging."

He trains against two opponents at a time, sometimes three, to give him the necessary test and will go abroad for regular training blocks to find the high-quality singles practice partners he needs to keep pushing him.

This week he is part of the 16-athlete Irish team competing in the Youth Olympics in Buenos Aires where, yesterday, he beat Kettiya Keoxay 2-0 in his opening group game.

Nyugen is seeded third in the 32-player badminton competition and has no illusions about his strengths and weaknesses.

"The best part of my game is my net skills. I like the soft touches at the net. When I play my best I control that area of the game."

And the worst?

"The mental side of things. I get ahead of myself and overthink things and that leads to me not being confident enough to play my skills," he says, admitting he thought he didn't need the help of a sports psychologist before, but has just enlisted one.

After Argentina he has the World Junior Championships in Toronto in November.

"Playing badminton is all I ever wanted so I'm doing what I love now really," the Clare Hall teenager enthuses.

"I won my first tournament when I was a little kid, maybe U-11 in Baldoyle," he recalls.

"When you're a kid you have this vision and I was like 'if I can win this why can't I win the Europeans and the Olympics?' That's the vision I had in my head. I believed that and I still believe it to this day."

Athletics: M Daly (400H), S Meredith (LJ), M Tcheutchoua (Hammer)

Badminton: N Nguyen.

Boxing: D Clancy (Flyweight), L Kelly (Middleweight), D Rooney (Bantamweight)

Diving: T Watson (10m Platform)

Karate: S McCarthy Crean (+68kg)

Golf: L Crowley Walsh & D Kitt (Individual & Mixed Team)

Gymnastics: E Slevin (Women's Artistic)

Swimming: N Coyne (breaststroke), M McSharry (breaststroke & freestyle), R Powell (freestyle & butterfly)

Tennis: G Drummy

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