Nhat Nguyen (17) is already a two-time Irish senior badminton champion and, though still in school, plays for a professional team in Germany. He lives in Clare Hall, Dublin and trains at the National Badminton Centre in Marino. In 2016 he was European U17 champion and also won bronze in the doubles. This year he reached the quarter-finals of the World Junior Championships.
Q: Nhat you have a lovely Dublin accent but that’s not a traditional Irish name. What is your family heritage?
A: It’s Vietnamese. My parents came here from Vietnam in 2006 when I was four. I have one sister (Tham) who is older than me who competed for Ireland at weightlifting. My first name is pronounced Nat, with a silent ‘h’, and all I know is my mam named me after a singer!
Q: How and when did you get into badminton?
A: I started playing when I was six or seven because of my dad. He was a player in the local club and I got started by playing with him. He wasn’t an international or anything, just an average club player but he really loves the sport. By the time I was 11 I was beating him.
Q: Some of us still have an image of badminton as a genteel social game played in community halls. Is it very different at the elite level?
A: I play with my friends in the school sometime just to show them how hard it actually is.
It’s annoying sometimes when people say how easy it is because they don’t know how much work you have to put in on and off the court.
Everyone says their sport is the toughest but I think badminton is one of the toughest out there, mentally and physically. I just eat, sleep, train and repeat.
Q: Are you still in school?
A: Yes, I’m in sixth year in St David’s CBS (Artane). I’m doing five subjects for the Leaving Cert next summer – English Irish, Maths, French and Biology - well six with LCPS, though I don’t really call that a subject!
Q: How much training do you do?
A: I try to train twice a day, before and after school during the week and on Saturdays and sometimes take Sundays off. On weekdays I get up at 5.45 or 5.50am. That’s tough but you get used to it. School finishes at 3:30 and I’m back training for two hours again at either 5 of 6.
Q: How do you manage all that and studying for your Leaving?
A: To be honest, training is more of my priority than school. I try to do some homework but my teachers know my main focus is badminton so they’re more lenient.
I won’t be going to college, it’s going to be full-time badminton for me after school. If you’re top 20 in the world it’s possible to make a good living from badminton.
Q: Is it true you’re actually already playing professionally?
A: Yes, I play for a club in Cologne, in Germany and make some money from that. I go over 10 weekends over the year. They cover all my expenses, flights, food and accommodation.
Q: How did that come about?
A: It’s the same club that the Magees (Chloe and Sam) play for, that’s how they got to know me. They were trying to sign me for two years but I had school and that.
This year I decided it was time to make a little bit of money and living for myself. I was ranked eighth in the world after World Juniors in October but I’m focussed on seniors now.
Q: If you’re national champion how do you manage to get enough quality practice here at home?
A: That’s a problem because we don’t have that many players. There’s only five or six of us in the National Centre so, sometimes, I have to go abroad for a week or two to get better practice partners. This Olympic Council funding will help me a lot with my tournament costs. It will save my parents a lot of money.
Q: You spent most of last summer’s school holidays training abroad?
A: Yes, I went to Indonesia for a two-month training camp. My old coach (Irwan from Indonesia) is now working in their national training centre so he got me into a club there, just outside Jakarta.
Q: What was that like? Asia is the power-house of international badminton, right?
A: Yes, it was the first time I got such intense training, two or three times a day for six days a week. It was mentally draining. After five to six weeks my head was gone! But I just had to push through for the last two weeks. I was by myself for the first month which was tough, and them my doubles partner Paul Reynolds came over for the last month.
Q: Where did you stay?
A: In the club itself. The training hall was just upstairs and the kitchen was right beside my room. It’s a completely different world out there. I was in the suburbs and there were shanty towns and homeless people everywhere.
Q: You won the European U17 title last year but how big is the jump to ‘Worlds’, even at junior level?
A: There is a big gap. I got to the quarter-finals at World Juniors and had a big chance to bring back the first medal at that level to Ireland.
I was playing a Chinese guy, won the first set and was 18-15 up in the second. I saw the finishing line but I couldn’t take it. I never got into the third set, I was just thinking too much about the second set.
Q: What’s the best of your game?
A: Probably my net skills - my touch at the net.
Q: And your biggest weakness?
A: I think it’s my focus levels, my concentration level dips in and out. When I play well I can play really well and when I play poorly I can be very poor but I’m getting there. I’ll also need to develop physically because I’m moving up now to play senior but, with me, it (the challenge) is more mental than physical.
Q: Who are the superstars of your sport that you look up to?
A: Lin Dan and Lee Chong Wei from China and Kento Momato from Japan, I study him a lot. His game is kinda similar to mine so I try and take little pieces of his game and put it into mine.
Q: What are your target events in 2018?
A: The European Juniors in Estonia (September), Youth Olympics in Argentina (August) and World Juniors in Toronto (November) – three very big tournaments.
Badminton has already taken me around the world. My first international trip, after I won my first Irish senior title at 15, was to Russia for the European Seniors.
Q: What will you need to do to qualify for the Olympics in 2020?
A: I’ll have to be top 70 in the World and the top Irish player so I’ll have to be ahead of Scott Evans in the rankings.
I’ve never played him yet. He didn’t play in either of the last two national championships which I won.
I don’t just want to go to the Olympics and say ‘I went to the Olympics.’ I want to do well, I want to win the gold. It’s a long, long process but I think I’m ready for it.
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