Raised For Greatness: Olympian Nhat Nguyen On His Journey From Vietnam To Team Ireland

From a Vietnamese village to becoming an Olympian and one of Badminton’s brightest stars, Nhat Nguyen knows all about perseverance. We chat to him about family, humility and the power of sport as he sets his eyes on Paris 2024.

“I didn’t have socks,” says Nhat Nguyen, looking off into the middle distance of memory. “I only had like three t-shirts, which I would wear in the week, then just wash them again. I had quite a tough background growing up.”

Struggle defined Nguyen’s early life from the moment he was born in a small village outside Hanoi in the year 2000. With little opportunity available (“I probably would have just been a farmer if we’d stayed,” he chuckles), his parents decided to uproot and move he and his sister to Ireland when he was just six. Their first stop: Belturbet, Cavan.

“All I remember is the people in Cavan were really nice,” he recalls. He and his family were embraced by the community, with his teachers even offering extra lessons in English. Despite the warm welcome, life was tough. His father commuted from Cavan to Dublin to work in a Chinese restaurant while his mother stayed home to look after him and his sister.

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“It makes me the person I am now,” he says reflectively, “so I think I’m quite grounded.” Coming from such humble beginnings, Nguyen is determined to never take anything for granted.

It was Nguyen’s father, in fact, who passed on the Badminton bug to his son while they scraped to establish themselves in Ireland.

“My dad played at a club level in Vietnam, not a high level, but he loved the sport,” he says. With little money or choices, a young Nguyen would tag along on the weekends to watch and play.

“Once [my dad] would go back to Dublin, my Mam would take me to the park and we’d mess around” They even went so far as to make their own court. “My dad painted a court in the carpark. It was quite small, so we had a net going around it. We actually went back to Belturbet once, it was still there.”

“I wasn’t having fun playing Badminton at the start,” he laughs. “I was a lazy kid, I didn’t want to move or to run – I didn’t want to exercise basically. But, again, there was nothing else to do - and it was something to do with my Mam.”

So, what changed?

“I love winning,” he says. “I hate to lose. I’m very competitive. So even though I didn’t enjoy it,” he adds with a chuckle, “I liked to beat my Mam.”

The more opponents Nguyen took on, the more potential he realised he had. It wasn’t long until Nguyen moved away from the carpark (and playing his Mam) onto the National stage.

It didn’t come without its troubles: a teenage Nhat spent years restricted to playing and staying in Ireland as his family’s status as residents was clarified.

“It made me more motivated, to work even harder, to get better,” he recalls. “When they were going away, I was training in Ireland. I would eat, sleep, go to school and train.

“I always knew I would get my Irish passport eventually that I would travel and show the rest of the world my level.”

He did exactly that. In the 2016 European Under-17’s Singles, Nguyen came out on top. Unlike the others competitors, he had never having competed against any of his opponents but Nguyen backed himself from the get go. “I had expectations because I won the Irish Nationals in the same year and I was making good results against older players. I definitely knew I had a chance to medal.” Not only did he medal, he won Gold and finally the international Badminton world knew exactly who he was.  

Nguyen’s positive attitude is key to his success, but he knows he couldn’t have got here without the support of the people around him.

“I’m very grateful to everyone that supports me,” he beams, “I can’t really explain the feeling… even when things go bad, they’ll always be behind you. With Irish people, we’re a small nation but we really get behind our athletes.

“We’re a small nation, but we’re frickin’ loud!”

“Leading up to the games I had great support, I’m from Clarehall, Dublin and the community and the estate where I come from had flags, my picture, my name everywhere.” It’s this kind of support that motivates Nguyen to keep going. But the biggest support of all, comes from his family.

“Without them, I don’t think I’d be the person I am now. Without them, I wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be in Ireland. Without my parents making that risky move, that gamble, to move to Ireland – I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

Qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo was one of those proud moments. The qualifications started pre-Covid, in 2019, and Nguyen ranked 25 out of the Top 40 – no mean feat for one of Team Irelands’ youngest members.

Nguyen knew the Olympics would be tough, particularly as he would be taking on opponents with a lot more experience. True to form, Nguyen persevered, got his head down and trained non-stop for 8 weeks. “I would leave home around 7[am] and wouldn’t get back until 7 or 8[pm]. Looking back, I can’t believe I did it. But I didn’t want to leave any stones unturned. I wanted to be in the best shape I could be for the biggest event of all.”

In the end, Nguyen didn’t get the result he wanted but his head remains high. “I was very proud of my performance and my preparation. The result didn’t go my way, but that’s life, that’s sport. Hopefully it will go my way in the next one.”

Paris 2024 is fast approaching, but Nguyen is confident he has time on his side. Having already competed in Tokyo, Nguyen feels good to have the experience coming into the next games but he’s not thinking about gold yet, for him it’s all about progress – and pride.

 “I want to give back to my parents, that’s my main reason to play Badminton now,” he says.

“I play for my parents now. Of course I have ambition, but nothing will compare to what my parents have done for me… the better I do in Badminton, the more proud they’ll be.”

“2024 is a stepping stone,” he says, coming back to the here and now, the latest step in the long road he’s walked with optimism and determination.

“I’m just going there to give it my all.”

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