Finding Freedom in the Pool

Having lost the use of her legs as a child, Trinh Thi Bich Nhu’s future was far from certain, until she started swimming. By Simon Stanley. Translation by Cam-Tu Tran. Photos by Vinh Dao.

I was born in Kien Giang province,” says 30-year-old Trinh Thi Bich Nhu quietly. She’s understandably nervous about talking to me. From the inquisitive looks I’ve received on the way to meet her, I’d guess they don’t get too many foreign journalists out here in the far reaches of HCMC’s Thu Duc district.

“My village is 250 kilometres southwest of Saigon,” she adds, “almost at the bottom of the map.”

Growing up in such an isolated part of the country was never going to be easy, but when Nhu accidentally fell into a river near her home at the age of three, her life was changed forever. “I developed a fever,” she explains. “My parents took me to various places to find a treatment. However, at that time there were no proficient doctors, so my fever couldn’t be cured.”

Nhu had contracted poliomyelitis, a highly contagious virus that had been present in the water. At three years old, Nhu had polio.

“I was about 10 or 11 when my parents told me that story,” she says, now unable to remember the incident herself.

By the time the fever had subsided, it was too late. The muscles in Nhu’s legs grew thin and weak and were soon unable to support her weight – a rare but devastating after-effect of the disease. She spent her childhood on crutches.

“It felt like my life was coming to a dead-end.”

“I couldn’t run or hop or play outside anymore, and I didn’t have any friends. At night I would think, why do I have to suffer this? Why didn’t Mum and Dad try to cure it? My thoughts were very pessimistic. It felt like my life was coming to a dead-end.”

But the young Nhu was determined to break free of the isolation and of her disability. She’d always dreamt of running her own tailoring shop and in 2008, aged 23 and by then using a wheelchair, moved to Saigon to join a seamstress school for disabled people. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” she says, her eyes now briefly meeting mine as she warms to my presence. “Only normal people can do the jobs in my hometown, but I knew I had to find work so I could take care of my own life.”

In 2010 a friend suggested she try swimming as a means of therapy. Spending her days hunched over a sewing-machine, painstakingly training her weak leg muscles to control the pedal, she quickly fell in love with the water.

“I just knew swimming by paddling my arms,” she says. “In my hometown, they call it ‘dog-swimming’.”

Despite her modesty, it didn’t take long for her talents to be noticed by Dong Quoc Cuong, a sports coach revered by disabled athletes all over Vietnam. “He said that I had the ability to swim professionally. I thought, how could I do that? I just swim by paddling my arms.”

Cuong offered to train the youngster and quickly began entering her into competitions. Her first gold medal came at a national event in Danang.

“I felt like I was flying high in the air. At that time it was very difficult for disabled people to get into sport, but I saw that it could potentially change my life.”

With a one-month, government-funded training grant and a rack of national medals, Nhu gave up her tailoring ambitions and flew to Indonesia to compete at the 2011 ASEAN Para Games where she took two gold medals.

“I called my dad right away,” she says. “I said, ‘Dad, I won gold medals!’ But he kept silent. He didn’t say a word. ‘Don’t you feel happy about that?’ I asked. ‘Why won’t you say anything?’ ‘I’m just so happy,’ he said eventually. ‘I don’t know what to say.’”

Nhu Swimmer

Seeing the World

Her success secured Nhu a place at the London 2012 Paralympics and a four month training grant. Suddenly plunged into the world arena, with many of her competitors backed by permanent funding, Nhu sadly failed to make it through the preliminary heats.

“Parasport in Vietnam was not funded much, so it was the best I could do at the time,” she says, adding that the spectacle of the event and the chance to visit the United Kingdom outshone any disappointment.

After winning a silver medal at 2014’s Asian Para Games in South Korea, Nhu went on to compete in the 2015 World Championships in Scotland. Arriving poolside for the 100-metre breaststroke final, wearing the same lucky jacket she’d worn in Indonesia, Nhu climbed onto the starting platform, said a short prayer and waited for the starting buzzer. A medal here would take her to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Going for Gold

Whether the jacket helped or not, Trinh Thi Bich Nhu took second-place and Vietnam’s first world-class medal in the pool. For good measure, she earned a further three medals at the ASEAN Para Games in Singapore later that year.

With the profile of parasports growing all over the world, the Vietnamese authorities agreed to increase their funding budgets for disabled sportsmen and women, and on 1 January 2016, Nhu and her three teammates received the first instalment of a permanent, long-term grant. The cash will see them through their training for the Paralympics in September, and every event thereafter. It’s a big step forward not only for Nhu, but for Vietnam.

The team has now moved in to the National Sports Training Centre in Thu Duc district, with a gym and swimming pool a stone’s throw from their accommodation block. Still under Cuong’s tutelage, Nhu trains six days per week for up to six hours. Vietnam is taking Rio more seriously than any other Paralympics in its history.

I ask Nhu if she’s used to the pressure such a high-profile event must bring. “I can’t say I don’t like it,” she replies. “The crowd gives me motivation. I get nervous in front of the cameras, but it’s thanks to them that my family back home can watch.”

Away from the Water

While navigating around the training centre is fairly easy, with its wheelchair ramps and improved accessibility, life is understandably tough as a wheelchair user in Vietnam.

“When I go out, I have to ask people to help push me down the road. When I go by bus, I have to ask people for help. I wish the city had special paths and buses, like those I’ve seen abroad, specifically for people with disabilities.”

Despite the hardships, Nhu has come a long way from being the shy, isolated girl from the rice paddies of Kien Giang.

“Through swimming, I now have many more friends and am able to be a part of society,” she says, her smile bright and her soft southern tones now lilting clearly across the room. “Thanks to this sport, I can travel abroad, I can meet many more people, and stop those feelings of self-pity.

“We all have difficulties in life, but we have to try, in everything we do, to overcome them. I think we should always aim to better ourselves. That’s my way of looking at life.”

Published May 2016 – AsiaLIFE Magazine

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