Married couple set out to conquer Tokyo Paralympic Games
Cao Ngoc Hung and Nguyen Thi Hai are one of the world’s most famous disabled athlete couples. The world-class duo will represent Vietnam at the upcoming Tokyo Paralympics, aiming to bring home medals in para athletics.
Top national athletes Cao Ngoc Hung and Nguyen Thi Hai will compete at the Tokyo Paralympics on August 24-September 5. — Photo webthethao.vn
The couple have been well-known since they were young through their numerous national championship titles. The husband and wife have also won many regional, continental and world championships.
Hùng from Quảng Bình Province, has limited movement in his left leg as a result of contracting polio when he was two. Meanwhile, Nghệ An Province-born Hải’s right leg has been impaired since the age of three, also through polio.
Both left their poverty-stricken hometowns to find a better life in HCM City and found love in sport and each other at the Tân Bình District Culture and Sport Centre.
They share the same impairment classification of F57 (impaired muscle power, limb deficiency, impaired passive range of movement and leg length difference) and practise throwing the javelin, discus and shot put.
After nearly two decades in sport, Hùng has showed his talent with many titles at the national championship and the biennial ASEAN Para Games since 2005.
He became the first Vietnamese athlete to win an athletics medal at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil, where he threw the javelin 43.27m and grabbed bronze.
“The bronze is my best official result as well as of Việt Nam’s para athletics to date. It is also the most valuable and honourable medal in my career,” Hùng, 31, told Việt Nam News.
Hải began the sport later than her husband but her talent was discovered just minutes after her first trial.
“A coach asked me to have a throw as a test. And my result surprised him because it was much better than his players who had trained for a long time,” Hải said.
Several weeks later, she competed in the national championship and claimed two golds and one silver, which brought her to the national team in 2005.
The beautiful 20-year-old needed just a few more months of practice to debut at the ASEAN Para Games in the same year when she made a bang with a hat-trick of golds and records in the javelin, discus and shot put.
Since then, Hải has had no worthy rival in the region. She is an 18-year champion with 15 golds and a record holder. She has also won a gold, silver and bronze in continental events.
Her most impressive result was a throw of 24.88m in the discus at the 2014 Para Games, which beat the world record at the time.
The couple have not been able to compete in international tournaments in the last two years because of the pandemic. However, Hùng’s fourth place at the 2019 world championship in Dubai was enough for him to gain a slot at the Tokyo Games. Meanwhile, Hải also qualified after the International Paralympic Committee announced their final list of participants in March.
“We are working with high intensity to prepare for the Paralympics. I really want to get higher result in Tokyo,” said Hùng who will be entering for the third time. “My results in training are better than before. But during competition, there are many things that could affect my performance. Though every athlete hopes to win a medal, I don’t want to make it a must because it would put heavy pressure on me. I will just try to do better than the past.”
However, it will not be easy as rule changes are favouring bigger athletes.
“It has changed for a few years. I have to face those who are really big. I am not small among Vietnamese but nothing compared to some,” he said.
Hải interjects: “I have gained weight to take part. I look big, but some of my rivals are double. It is the same for my husband.”
The couple are not letting any rules and regulations get their way, and are instead just focusing on being the best they can be.
“There is no way around it, so we have to work harder and harder. We have to train twice, which is a shift of around five to six hours per day,” Hùng said.
Hải is determined to win her first medal in her return to the Paralympics after her unexpected absence due to having a baby five years ago.
“My results from two previous Games were pretty good. In the F57 event, I should have earned silver but the organisers decided to combine the F56 and F57 classes, so I was kicked out of the top three,” Hải told Việt Nam News. “My training results are better than in previous tournaments. I am good at all three events but will compete in discus and shot put.”
The couple is rich in medals but faces difficulties to feed their family and two children.
"If I was living in a developed country, I would be very rich with so many titles and records," Hải said. "But as you can see, I still have to sell things online to earn enough for my family. It is because athletes with disabilities are not given monthly salary and bonuses, and when we do it is half what regular athletes get."
Cao Ngoc Hung and Nguyen Thi Hai and their childrenona television show in 2020. Despite tough training and many challenges, they live a happy life. — Photo thegioidienanh.vn
"You may not know but it is true that we struggle. I have an online shop; my husband works as a real estate agent, while world Asian powerlifting champion (Nguyễn Bình) An is a lottery vendor. We only receive an allowance around VNĐ7 million (US$300) per month when we are called to serve the national team.”
Hùng said that while people promise a lot before tournaments, they keep quiet after: “When I get a bronze from Rio, they said things would change; we would receive a monthly salary, this and that. But five years later, nothing has happened.”
He said it was necessary for different organisations to join hands to popularise the positive image of the sport and influence the wider community.
"As I know, international athletes with difficulties receive big bonuses for high result. Vietnamese athletes are as strong as them. I hope Việt Nam looks at it and changes to encourage us in our careers. Otherwise, we will have to think of quitting for other jobs to live a better life," Hùng said.