SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Patience, as much as skill and flexibility, has become a necessary part of the armory of Southeast Asia’s top-ranked gymnast, Vietnam’s Phan Thi Ha Thanh.
Despite its universal appeal, gymnastics has not been a permanent fixture on the Southeast Asian Games program, an inconsistency that has both frustrated and tested the resolve of the region’s leading competitors.
Few gymnasts have suffered more from the sport’s infrequent inclusion at the SEA Games than the 23-year-old Thanh, one of Vietnam’s most celebrated female athletes.
She won her first SEA Games gold medal in 2007, on the vault, as a precocious 15-year-old, but had to wait another four years before her next appearance after gymnastics was scrapped for the 2009 edition of the biennial multi-sports gathering.
When gymnastics was re-included in 2011, Thanh had already established herself as the region’s leading light.
A few months earlier, she finished third in the vault at the world championships in Tokyo, becoming the first Vietnamese gymnast to medal at that level, a feat which earned her automatic qualification for the 2012 London Olympics.
At the SEA Games, she won three gold medals and a bronze. She won the All-Around title, as well as medals in three of the four different apparatus disciplines — gold in the vault and floor exercise, and bronze on the balance beam.
A year later, she won her first Asian title in the vault, denying a Chinese sweep of the women’s gold medals at the Asian championships.
Tranh was twice named Vietnam’s athlete of the year but hopes of another big haul at the SEA Games were again put on hold when gymnastics was left off the 2013 program, in part because not all of the 11 competing countries enter athletes.
“For Southeast Asia, gymnastics is a sport that needs long-term investment,” Thanh said in a recent interview with Vietnam television.
“It is quite difficult in practice, so some countries not having athletes participating is understandable.
“Hence we always prepare ourselves mentally and mostly focus on big competitions such as the Asian and the World Championship to aim for the Olympics.”
Thanh, who took up the sport when she was just six years old, has continued to enjoy success at international level while patiently waiting for her next chance at the SEA Games.
She won a silver medal in balance beam and a bronze in vault at last year’s Asian Games. Earlier this year, she won gold in the beam and silver in the vault at the Doha round of the World Challenge Cup.
Now she is targeting another big haul in Singapore.
“Returning to the SEA Games after four years, we feel very happy,” she said. “I’m just aiming to maintain what I have achieved at the previous SEA Games.”
Additional reporting by Mai Nguyen in Hanoi; Editing by John O'Brien