Friday 19 October 2018

Teen star Nguyen doing hard yards to close gap on the world's best

Nhat Nguyen in action in the Irish Badminton Open final. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Nhat Nguyen in action in the Irish Badminton Open final. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

He slept at the badminton club. In a small room downstairs from the training hall in Jakarta, Indonesia, Nhat Nguyen bunkered down each night and did his best to recuperate after the two, sometimes three, sessions he would complete every day.

For two months, that was the 17-year-old's life last summer, the Dubliner all alone in a rickety part of a foreign city, channelling his energy towards a single goal: to get better.

"It was a completely different world," says Nguyen. "I was in the suburbs of Jakarta so it was shanty towns everywhere, homeless people everywhere, people asking for money. I asked myself every week what I was doing."

Nguyen based himself there for eight weeks to train with world-class players under the guidance of his old coach, Irwansyah, who had moved from Ireland to Indonesia last year after coaching Nyugen to a European U-17 title.

"It was very intense, training two or three times a day," says Nguyen. "It was mentally draining. After five or six weeks my head was gone but I had to push through. It was a tough time but well worth it."

Of course, uprooting himself for a move across the world was nothing new. Nguyen was born in Vietnam, grew up in the countryside outside Hanoi, but moved to Ireland in 2006 along with his parents and older sister.

He remembers his friends and relatives back in Vietnam, but apart from that he can only narrate his story from the time he arrived in Dublin at the age of six, knowing precisely zero words of English.

"I'd go and learn a word or two every day at the local school and come home and tell my parents," he says. "I thought that was the biggest achievement of my life."

His father Lai was the reason he took up badminton - a player short on talent but heavy on love for the sport. Nhat first picked up a racquet at the age of six, played his first competitive match at the age of 10 and was already beating his old man at 11.

"My dad always told me I had something special with the racquet, and every person I came across told me something similar," says Nguyen. "I knew there was something there so I worked hard for it."

At the age of 14 he joined the national team at their training base in Marino, playing alongside seniors like Chloe and Sam Magee. The following year Nguyen became the youngest player to win an Irish senior title and then, in Poland last year, he became the first Irish player to win a European U-17 title.

Demeanour

 "I won pretty convincingly," says Nguyen with the calm demeanour of a player who knows just how good he is.

But that's not to say it's come easy. Now a sixth-year student at St David's in Glasnevin, Nguyen rises each morning at 5.50am, has breakfast then takes the bus to the national centre, where he completes an hour-long session before school under the guidance of coach John Quinn.

After school he's back there again, this time for a two-hour session, and by the time he gets home Nguyen rarely has the energy to do anything but recover. "Eat, sleep, rest and repeat," he says.

He has friends, lots of them, but apart from the odd game of Fifa his routine dictates that he can't socialise much.

"I sacrifice quite a lot," he admits. "I don't go out as much, don't smoke, don't drink, and my weekends are simple: sleep and rest and train."

But Nguyen knows what he wants - to be a world-class professional badminton player - and he knows how to get there.

For the last couple of years he has played professionally 10 weekends a year for a club in Cologne, Germany, a link brought about by his friendship with the Magees, who are signed by the club, TV Refrath.

"If you're top 10 or 20 in the world you can make a good living," says Nguyen.

"The club has been trying to sign me for the last two years so after I finish school I think it's time to go abroad, make a bit of money and do a bit of living."

Nguyen will sit the Leaving Cert next June, and - as guidance counsellors everywhere shake their head in disapproval - the only study he plans to do after that is of the game he loves.

"I won't be going to college, just full-time badminton," he says. "It's a long, long process but I think I'm ready for it."

But as far as he's come, he knows there's still a chasm between him and the world's best.

"My game is only developing, I've a lot more to give," he says. "My focus is my weakness, it dips in and out, but I watch a lot of video to see where I can improve and I watch the best players. It's all repetition - practise, practise, practise. You need to play players better than you to get that speed higher."

In October, Nguyen travelled back to Indonesia for the world junior championships and came up against a Chinese player - for those unfamiliar with badminton's superpowers, think Jamaican sprinter or Brazilian soccer player - in the quarter-final.

Despite being the underdog, he won the first set 21-18 in the best-of-three encounter. In the second he led 18-15, and a global medal drew within tantalising reach - but then he choked.

"I saw the finish line but couldn't capitalise," says Nguyen. "I lost six straight points."

With his mind in disarray, he drifted through the third set like a drunk in a 4am taxi ride and before he knew it, it was over.

"Next year I'll be in a better position to medal or win it. I've more experience now in senior events so I'm learning more, always playing people better than me."

This year, the European Juniors in Estonia, the Youth Olympics in Argentina and the World Juniors in Canada will be his three main targets.

Ranked

To qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 Nguyen will have to be ranked in the top 70 in the world and be the highest-ranked Irishman, which will put him on a collision course with Scott Evans in the years ahead.

But Nguyen's ability is such that just getting on the plane will not suffice. He works too hard and has too much talent to ever settle for being a championship tourist.

"I don't want to just go to say I've been to an Olympics," he says. "I want to medal. I want to win gold."

  • Nhat Nguyen was one of 12 Irish athletes to be awarded an Olympic Solidarity Scholarship, which will see him receive $625 per month in the build-up to the Tokyo Games in 2020 and up to $5,000 to assist with travel costs to competitions

Irish Independent

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