Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A profile of Vietnamese Paralympian Dao Van Cuong

From the Vietnam News Agency:

Sprinter Dao Van Cuong has had to face a lot of hurdles in life, but despite being partially-blind, he has kept on track to fulfil one of his ultimate ambitions - to set a new record in the Beijing Paralympic Games.

Ever since he was born Cuong, who was born with a congenital problem with his retina, has relied on touch rather than sight to get around. In full daylight, he can only make out vague shapes. An operation to correct his retina would cost hundreds of million dong. "I had a test a few years ago and the doctors said they were not sure about the odds of success. It's about 30 or 40 per cent," he says.

But his disability hasn't held him back. Last year, the 29-year-old became the only disabled athlete in the Southeast Asian region to get into the semi-finals at the Beijing Paralympics in the visual impairment class. Cuong marked Asian new record for the 400m sprint with 54.38secs.

This achievement tops a long list of successes. He's broken the 400m Asian record at the Far East and South Pacific Games (FESPIC), ASEAN ParaGames and Beijing Paralympics three times in a row. In 2006, he set a new Asian record at the FESPIC Games in Malaysia with a time of 55.15 seconds, 0.48 seconds faster than the previous record he himself had set at the third ASEAN ParaGames in the Philippines in 2005.

Now he runs with the Ha Noi paralympic team at Hang Day Stadium.

"I have won 15 medals since my first tournament in 2003 when I ran for Viet Nam," says Cuong. "I've won a medal at every tournament I've taken part in, except for the Paralympics."

"I'm proud of everything I've done, but it's been a long road."

Cuong isn't just a top athlete. He's also an adventurous businessman. The sprinter grew up with six brothers in impoverished Soc Son District, 30km from the centre of Ha Noi. After finishing high school, the ambitious youngster did a six-month training course in massage at the Ha Noi Centre for the Blind, while at the same time keeping up his sports training.

After graduating, Cuong and his friend Nguyen Anh Tu started up a business in a rented-house near Gia Lam bus station. The duo employed four blind masseurs to work full time with a VND800,000 monthly salary.

To attract customers, Cuong offered hour-long sessions for VND30,000. But it wasn't meant to be. After only a few months the business began to run aground.

"It was hard because we were trying to juggle the massage business with training," says Cuong. But it was the location of the massage parlour that was to blame for the failure of the business, says Nguyen Anh Tu: "People were put off because we set up the parlour at a busy bus station, rather than somewhere quiet."

Because most of the masseurs were blind, they couldn't offer their services door-to-door, which was another set-back for the pair. "That first failure really stunned us," says Tu. "But we've learnt from our mistakes." Now the two friends are trying to finish a four-year law course at Ha Noi Open University. Cuong is first year student, while Tu is preparing for his second year examination. They attend special oral lectures that do not rely on overhead projectors or blackboards, so they can fully comprehend their lessons.

Cuong may be nearly blind, but he has never let his disability get him down. Every morning he heads to Hang Day Stadium for training, where the national and municipal disabled teams have a two-hour track session.

The 29-year-old is in peak condition, says coach Ngo Anh Tuan, who chose him for 100m and 200m sprint events in Beijing.

"Cuong was more than fit for the part, says Tuan. "He is confident and has an excellent brain."

Tuan, who won the public vote for best coach of the year in 2008, says one of Cuong's best qualities is his determination to trounce adversity. "He has a strong desire to succeed. He seeks challenges both in life and in sport and is a very fast learner."

Tuan's advice has led Cuong to develop his skills in the 400m sprint, the event which has brought him so much glory over the past few years. "I use sport to get back on my feet when I'm knocked down. Sport gives me everything: health, money and a good reputation."

But not all of Cuong's love is reserved for sport. Five years ago, Cuong met Hoang Thi Minh, a goldsmith in Ha Noi, and they then fell in love. One year later and they were married.

"It was hard at first because my wife is fully sighted and when we first announced our intention to marry, her family did not agree. But we persuaded them that we love each other and the rest is history," the athlete says. The couple now have a three-year-old daughter.

"I never thought I'd know such happiness," Cuong says. "When I'm out on the track, I run for my country and my family. I don't know where I would be without my wife's support, she is the real secret of my success."

Cuong's fervour is shared by his wife Minh. "I know my husband is a powerful man. I trusted him at first sight and decided to devote myself to supporting him through his career." Minh now manages a shop in Soc Son district where she also looks after her daughter and parents-in-law.

"I look forward to the weekends when Cuong has time off from the track and can play with his daughter," she says.

The sprinter is not just the pride of his family, but also the country, says Vice Chairman and General Secretary of the Viet Nam Paralympic Committee, Vu The Phiet: "He is one of our key hopes for Viet Nam at the Far Eastern and South Pacific Asia in Malaysia next year. Vietnamese athletes are likely to win silver or bronze medals in all the sports. Cuong is our leading medal hopeful.

"He is an inspiration to others that the sheer force of will can overcome whatever challenges life throws at you.