No lucky bet, now to pay it forward

Nguyen Binh An's winning effort of 175kg fell short of his Asian record but was way higher than the lifts by Thais Sukjarern Choochat (150kg) and Pongsao Amorntep (123kg). An wants to change the lives of disabled people.
Nguyen Binh An's winning effort of 175kg fell short of his Asian record but was way higher than the lifts by Thais Sukjarern Choochat (150kg) and Pongsao Amorntep (123kg). An wants to change the lives of disabled people.PHOTO: WILSON WONG/SPORT SINGAPORE

Vietnamese powerlifter got into sport by chance and wants to open gym for disabled

Seven years ago, he was selling lottery tickets on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City to earn a living when he decided to enter a gym across the road out of curiosity.

Call it destiny or a slice of luck, but never in Nguyen Binh An's wildest dreams would he have foreseen that the move would propel him to become Asia's top para powerlifter in the 54kg class today, along with being second best in the world.

The 30-year-old was born able-bodied but a high fever when he was six damaged his brain and spine, paralysing his whole body for two years.

While he can now move his upper body, he is unable to control the lower half and relies on a wheelchair to travel.

His physique prompted one of the local coaches - who was training Paralympic athletes in the gym - to persuade him to give powerlifting a try.

As he had never done any form of weightlifting in his entire life, An was sceptical but ultimately decided to take a leap of faith.

It was not all smooth sailing at first. Initially, he had to practise with gym equipment designed for able-bodied athletes, a challenge given his spinal damage.

Speaking through a translator, he said: "Because of my spine, my balance shifts uncontrollably.

"I almost quit the sport."

However, with encouragement from his coach and increased government investment in disability-specific equipment, An persevered and pressed on.

His consistent effort in training led to him winning a gold in last year's Asian Para Games in Incheon and also smashing the previous Asian record during last year's International Paralympic Committee Powerlifting Open Asian Championships in Kazakhstan with a lift of 183kg.

His fine form has continued in Singapore at the Asean Para Games (APG), where he won the gold with a record-breaking effort of 175kg, exceeding his own mark of 170kg set last year.

Compatriot Le Van Cong, the world No. 1 in the men's 49kg class, helped cement Vietnam's dominance in the sport with a gold medal in another record-breaking effort. His best lift of 178kg beat his own record of 176kg set last year.

Nguyen said: "It was very exciting for us to win today, I am very proud for my country."

Though his 175kg winning effort was well below his personal best, he said the APG is part of preparations in the lead-up to next year's Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to land the gold.

He said: "I want to let the world know about Vietnam, and how strong we are in powerlifting."

He hopes that after the Paralympics, he will have enough money to open a gym aimed at training other disabled peple in Vietnam.

He earned 70 million dong (S$4,350) in cash awards for his gold medals at last year's APG and Asian Para Games.

His wish is that through this gym, more disabled people will be aware of the "opportunities" that are in place for them.

He added that he would personally approach these individuals himself, like how his coach came up to him seven years back.

"I want to change their lives, just like how my coach changed mine."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'NO LUCKY BET, NOW TO PAY IT FORWARD'. Print Edition | Subscribe