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Dublin: 6 °C Monday 17 December, 2018

'I only started playing badminton when I came to Ireland... It was one of the ways I tried to fit in'

17-year-old starlet Nhat Nguyen speaks to The42 about his rise towards the top of his sport.

17-year-old badminton player Nhat Nguyen is regarded as one of Irish sport's best prospects.
17-year-old badminton player Nhat Nguyen is regarded as one of Irish sport's best prospects.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

NHAT NGUYEN WAS just six years old when he left Vietnam for a new life in Ireland.

It is no doubt an intimidating prospect for a child, having to learn a whole new language and way of life at such a young and impressionable age.

Now 17, looking back to that time is largely a blur for Nguyen. He can remember saying goodbye to his grandparents, but that’s about it.

“I don’t remember much, but (Ireland is) definitely colder than Vietnam,” he laughs, in conversation with The42.

“But to be honest, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I’d moved country to Ireland. I thought I was going on holidays or something like that.

“It took a few years to settle in and then I was okay.”

The badminton starlet has been back to the country in which he was born just once, last summer, to catch up with family and friends.

Those he left behind will no doubt be proud of the exciting life he is already forging for himself in Ireland.

Sport is his passion. Starting when he was nine, for roughly three years, he played soccer, featuring as a striker for Santry-based schoolboy club Woodlawn FC. He “wasn’t bad” at it, but this hobby quickly got side-tracked by a more all-consuming activity. It was his father, who himself was “a good club-level player” in his day, that introduced a young Nguyen to the sport of badminton.

At the start I didn’t really like it, because I just followed (my dad) around as he played,” he recalls.

“But as I kept playing and kept playing, I started to fall in love with it.”

He adds: “I only started playing badminton when I came here. I joined the local club with my dad, just to play around and get to know the other kids.

“I guess it was one of the ways I tried to fit in and improve my English and socialise with people.”

Racism, Nguyen says, is not something he has ever experienced any “major problems” with in Ireland.

All my friends always treated me the same, so it was always fine, it was always no problem,” he adds.

So with a solid network of support behind him, Nguyen has excelled at his chosen sport. The teen sensation first garnered mainstream media attention last year, when he became the first Irish badminton player ever to win the U17 European championships.

“It was a nice surprise,” he told The42 afterwards, while the feat subsequently earned him a nomination for the Badminton Europe Young Player of the Year award.

Since then, Nguyen has continued to flourish. In 2017, he won his first senior titles in both singles and doubles at events in Wales and Poland respectively, while he also got as far as the quarter finals of the World Junior Championships.

“It was quite a special moment to win my first senior title, I didn’t expect it at all,” he says, of beating India’s RMV Gurusaidutt, a player who has been ranked in the top 20 in the world.

“It shows I can compete with and beat these senior guys.

“I think (becoming European U17 champion) was the beginning of my career. It gave me a good push (and told me) I was going in the right direction. And where I am now is at a good place.

“All I had to do was keep pushing myself in training so I could push for a senior title. I didn’t know it would come this soon, but I’ll take it.”

Nhat Nguyen Nhat Nguyen pictured competing at the Irish Open. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Earlier this month, he competed at the Irish Open, getting all the way to the final before losing out to Germany’s Alexander Roovers.

Though it ended in disappointment, Nguyen reflects on the experience positively.

“I played some of the best badminton I ever felt I played. I was very determined, especially with the home crowd.

“I would have been hoping to win the final as I beat (my opponent) the week before in Wales.

“I don’t know what happened… I couldn’t get myself going — it wasn’t my day.”

On top of all this, the Dublin-based athlete has his Leaving Certificate to contend with in a couple of months. He admits that mixing competing in top-level badminton with his studies in St David’s CBS in Artane is a challenge.

“It’s quite hard. I’m always behind in school. I miss a lot of days, so I have to play catch-up.

I always have to put in an extra hour, working at home, doing homework, trying to learn a new chapter in Biology, for example.”

He adds: “My daily routine is very strict. I get up really early in the morning to go training before school. I study in school and after school, I go training.

“I get home around seven or eight, do a bit of homework, eat, sleep and repeat the next day. It’s a very boring life, but it’s a life I enjoy

I would get up around 5.45am to go to training before school. Weekends I would try to do a light encore system or a light gym session just to keep myself in shape for the following week.”

All this hard work seems to be paying off. Last month, it was confirmed that Nguyen was one of four teenagers awarded funding scholarships for Tokyo 2020 from the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI).

“It helps my parents a lot,” he says. “My parents have to pay a little bit when I go away. Not that much. A little bit. But now it’s just all taken care of.

“It’s less stress for my parents, so they can just work and not worry as much.”

Nguyen had originally planned to do a part-time third-level course after school, but now he has decided he will focus completely on badminton once his Leaving Cert is finished.

“I don’t want any other distractions,” he explains. “I just want to play badminton and see what I can do in the sport.

Sam Magee and Chloe Magee in action against Gaetan Mittelheisser and Audrey Fontaine Sam and Chloe Magee train with and offer advice to Nguyen. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Irish badminton has taken some significant leaps in recent times, such as three-time Olympian Scott Evans’ memorable run at the Rio Games, where he pulled off some big results and got as far as the Round of 16.

Nguyen, meanwhile, trains on a daily basis with two other experienced Irish Olympians — Sam and Chloe Magee.

“I’m friends with them and they always give me good advice for how to deal with things.

“It helps me a lot, talking, training and getting to know what they went through and what I will be going through.

Sam and Chloe tell me to enjoy it and not to take it too seriously at the moment — (they tell me) to enjoy the journey rather than stressing about all these little things. I found that helpful.”

The teenage star’s overriding long-term goal is to emulate and ideally build on the achievements set by the likes of the Magees and Evans.

Like most teenagers, Nguyen has big dreams, but he also has the talent and the potential to back up these lofty ambitions.

“Obviously I want to compete in the Olympics, but I don’t want to go just to compete. I feel I have the hard work and dedication to go far.

“I’d like to medal in these events — the Europeans, the World Championships and even the Olympics… So I’ll be pushing on now. We’ll see what the future holds, but I’m feeling quite confident.

“Winning the titles and getting to the final of the Irish Open shows that I can compete with these guys. Give me a few years and I’ll definitely make my mark on the top level. That’s the plan.

“My family are very supportive. My sister, my parents, there are only four in the family.

My sister was a weightlifter so she knows a lot about sport and what it takes to be at the top. She understands and my parents understand as well — I hope I’m doing them proud.”

For now though, Nguyen must put his Olympic dreams to one side, with the less glamorous aspects of his life set to prioritised in the coming months.

“I have my Leaving Cert coming up so I have to reduce my tournaments a little bit. But after my Leaving Cert, I have the European Juniors, the Youth Olympic Games and the World Juniors.

“It’s a big stretch, I’m quite behind, I have to do some study over Christmas.

“But once the Leaving’s over, I can focus on badminton, so that’s good.”

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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Paul Fennessy

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