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Fields of gold

After two top-level near misses, Viet shooter must 'relax' to hit the target on latest mission

Morning breaks over Hanoi's Red River as hawkers roll out their food carts and the streets awaken with pedestrians and motorcycles jostling for space.

In this cacophonous city of motion with more motorbikes than households, serenity can be found in the silent and unerringly still form of Hoang Xuan Vinh demonstrating his craft at the National Sports Training Centre's (NSTC) shooting range.

He is Vietnam's top marksman, yet his unmoving face masks the misses that nag at him. Inside a wooden cupboard in his living room are medals in various colours, won at local and world-class competitions, signposting his rise to the highest levels of his sport.

But it is the two lapel pins resting alongside the medals that resonate as strongly with him. Those keepsakes are from the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games and 2012 London Olympics, settings where the veteran had his dreams dashed.

In the Chinese port city, the sharpshooter was on the brink of history. He was leading the 25m centre-fire pistol event going into the 60th and final shot when disaster struck. Each competitor had three seconds to aim and fire in the rapid-fire segment and he was a fraction late.

No score was registered and instead of capturing his country's first Asiad shooting gold, he finished 14th and was inconsolable.

Two years later at his first Olympics, Vinh's bid for a medal - Vietnam has won only two at the Summer Games - fell agonisingly short when he shot a woeful 7.3 (10.9 is the highest) for his penultimate attempt in the 50m pistol event.

He finished fourth with a 658.5 score, 0.1 of a point behind bronze medallist Wang Zhiwei of China and spent his post-competition interviews apologising.

  • TALE OF THE TAPE

  • HOANG XUAN VINH

    HE MISSED 50M PISTOL BRONZE IN LONDON BY
    0.1

    WORLD CUP 10M PISTOL GOLDS SINCE 2013
    2

    WORLD RECORDS (10M) SINCE 2013
    2

    HIS CHANCES
    I hope that with my good preparation, I can do the best to achieve something for my country... I'm going there on a mission for our country.

Defeat is part of an athlete's lexicon but so is persevering and Vinh, 41, cuts a serene figure when The Sunday Times met him last month at the sprawling NSTC compound. It is equipped with a running track, various multi-purpose sports halls and dormitories to house athletes from sports like badminton, silat, athletics and shooting.

Vinh leans his 1.78m, 80kg frame into the creaking plastic chair in the spartan canteen and between sips of his Vietnamese iced coffee, he says: "Failure in the past is a good lesson and reminder to work harder. Someone once told me that I shouldn't think too much about it... but it's hard to forget. I try to look forward rather than think too much about the past."

NOT AS EASY AS IT LOOKS

To simply hit the shooting target, a lot of people can do that. But to master the art of shooting is a challenge.

HOANG XUAN VINH, on the sport being more complicated than it appears to be.

In his sights are next month's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, whose skyline is dominated by the towering Christ the Redeemer statute. The city is an appropriate setting for someone seeking his own piece of redemption.

He ended last year as world No. 3 in the 50m pistol and is currently ranked sixth in the 10m air pistol. He and team-mate Tran Quoc Cuong will compete in both events in Brazil though Vinh is Vietnam's best hope of a podium finish since weightlifter Hoang Anh Tuan returned home from the 2008 Beijing Games with a silver medal.

Seeing the red and gold flag hoisted at Rio's National Shooting Centre is his main ambition, says Vinh. "I hope that with my good preparation, I can do the best to achieve something for my country."

His best is quite something. He held the 10m air pistol final world record in 2014 before it was eclipsed by South Korea's triple Olympic champion Jin Jong Oh. He has also bagged multiple ISSF World Cup medals, including golds at stops in Changwon, South Korea and Fort Benning, United States in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Technically, he is on a par with the planet's best shooters, notes his South Korean coach Park Chung Gun. "There is nothing I can teach him that he doesn't already know. What he needs to learn is to not be perfect. Hoang puts too much pressure on himself for every shot. He wants to score 10.9 every time. That's impossible."

Yet the search for precision is exactly what draws Vinh to the sport. His teenage daughter Tue Minh loves painting and fashion design but her father sees art in the parabolic flight of a 0.22-calibre slug piercing the target paper.

Shooting reveals character, reflects Vinh, whose mood alternates between lackadaisical and pensive. "It may not seem complicated technique-wise at first glance. However, if you take a closer look, it's actually very taxing mentally.

"It requires so much concentration, the ability to coordinate everything (breathing, body movement, aim, triggering) precisely... To simply hit the shooting target, a lot of people can do that. But to master the art of shooting is a challenge."

The lack of adequate shooting facilities at the NSTC, on the outskirts of the capital and bounded by padi fields, has been one major obstacle in his path. The air-conditioning inside the 10m air pistol range is less reliable than a local taxi's fare meter and the sauna-like temperatures make it an almost impossible environment to train in.

 

The deafening silence is worse. An ammo shortage has meant that most of the national shooters can only work on their posture and aiming drills without actually firing bullets at the target board.

 

Vinh receives about 50 rounds to practise - though the supply is irregular each day - and that is nowhere adequate, not when his foreign rivals are firing a minimum of 300 shots a day to sharpen their skills ahead of Rio, grumbles coach Park.

"That's why Vinh has to train in Korea," he says. "He is a shooter, he has to shoot. Not stand around and point the gun at nothing."

Nevertheless, overcoming hardships are practically second nature to Vinh, who endured a tough childhood. He was three when his mother died and he grew up in a poor household where rice was a luxury and he and his siblings survived mostly on tapioca.

His decision to follow in his father's footsteps and join the army was largely due to not having the money to attend college.

He is now a colonel and though his face is not plastered on billboards around Hanoi like swimming star Nguyen Thi Anh Vien, he is famous enough to be stopped at local airports for photographs.

He had never fired a gun until he became a soldier but his life changed when he was handed a rifle at the age of 24. He won his first shooting medal at a national competition a year later in 1999 and joined the national team in 2000.

Within 12 months, he was a SEA Games gold medallist - capturing 12 golds across eight Games - and on his way to becoming his nation's most decorated shooter.

Yet even the best can falter at critical moments. The story of American Matthew Emmons, whose failure to win the 50m rifle three-positions gold after he messed up his final shot at both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, is oft-repeated but serves as inspiration for Vinh.

He says: "It's a pity he didn't win but he found out what was wrong and corrected those problems (he has three Olympic medals including a gold and will compete in Rio)".

In a world where perfection is located in a button-sized bull's eye 11.5mm in diameter, the margins separating success and failure are incredibly fine.

Equally narrow is Vinh's focus. He has barred his wife Phan Huong Giang and two children from accompanying him to South America.

"They cannot go because I'm going there on a mission for our country. This is not a holiday."

The reluctant tourist is however, intent on returning home with a shiny metallic souvenir for that trophy cabinet.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 31, 2016, with the headline 'Fields of gold'. Print Edition | Subscribe