South-east Asia's brightest hopes

South-east Asia's athletes failed to bring home gold from the London 2012 games. Meet the star athletes who have endured years of gruelling training and strict diets for a hopeful podium finish at Rio 2016 - and who carry an entire region's dreams for gold on their shoulders.

  • Joseph Schooling 1
  • Ratchanok Intanon 2
  • Pandelela Rinong 3
  • Hoang Xuan Vinh 4
  • Hidilyn Diaz 5
  • Maria Londa 6

SINGAPORE'S JOSEPH SCHOOLING
Older, faster, wiser

BY MELISSA SIM, US CORRESPONDENT

It is close to dinner time as Joseph Schooling dives into the pool at the South Florida Aquatic Club, just outside of Fort Lauderdale.

While one could just about make out the faint growl of hungry stomachs, the quiet is broken as Schooling and his team-mates break into a sprint while Singapore head coach Sergio Lopez barks out instructions.

Lopez cracks a joke about getting to dinner on time just as Schooling reaches the wall. He wears a smile on his face. It is less than two months to the Olympics, but there is a steady calmness about the 21-year-old.

Singapore's main hope for a swimming medal in Rio de Janeiro is completely in his element - focused and relaxed.

WHEN TO WATCH SCHOOLING'S EVENTS (SGT)

100m Freestyle
Heats: Wed, Aug 10 at 12:02am
Semi-finals: Wed, Aug 10 at 9:03am
Final: Thurs, Aug 11 at 10:03am

100m Butterfly
Heats: Fri, Aug 12 at 1:16am
Semi-finals: Fri, Aug 12 at 10:34am
Final: Sat, Aug 13 at 9:12am

Singapore's Joseph Schooling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a training camp ahead of the Rio Olympics on July 13. ST PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG
Singapore's Joseph Schooling in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a training camp ahead of the Rio Olympics on July 13. ST PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG

"There was a different sort of pressure in 2012, it was more of an external pressure," said Schooling, referring to the London Olympics. "Now I focus on myself.

I do it for myself and the people around me and I don't worry about what other people say."

A mature and collected athlete, it seems, has taken the place of the young upstart of four years ago who was eager to tip the scales.

"In 2012, I thought I could fight with (Michael) Phelps," he said,he said in reference to the 18-time Olympic gold-winning American.

"But I was not physically and mentally ready and my only experience was the SEA Games."

He also admits being starstruck at the time, something he has overcome after competing regularly against Phelps and other top swimmers in the past few years.

"I have to feel like I belong at the Olympics and World Championships, rub shoulders with the best and not be star struck," he said, which is where he is now.

I have to feel like I belong at the Olympics and World Championships, rub shoulders with the best and not be star struck
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Schooling celebrates after a win at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore on June 10, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

In fact, he was even able to beat his idol in the 100m butterfly at the Longhorn Elite Invite held in Austin, Texas last month.

He finished first, in 51.58 seconds – placing him at seventh fastest in the world this year.

Another confidence boost was his bronze medal in the same event at the World Championships in Kazan, Russia, last August.

"There is a peacefulness and control when you take your mark and you know you are going to do well and not going to mess up. It happened at the Asian Games and also at the worlds," said Schooling, who added that he has had a year to gain ground on his competitors since.

"I'm the youngest guy. I've got the most to improve, I can recover faster. Every year makes a difference."

Hungary's Laszlo Cseh has clocked the year's best time in the 100m fly. His 50.86 is just ahead of Phelps (51.00) and also Chad le Clos (51.56). All three are expected to be Schooling's biggest threats to winning a medal.

Schooling will likely have to better his personal best of 50.96, clocked in Kazan, to be in contention for a historic podium finish.

Older, wiser, his preparation for his second Games has also seen him pay closer attention to his diet. The butterfly specialist admits he eats "a healthier version of everything", for example, opting for his meals to be cooked in coconut oil if possible.

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Schooling following his win at the SEA Games in Singapore in 2015. PHOTO: ST FILE
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Schooling during one of his training sessions in preparation for the Rio Olympics. ST PHOTO: JEREMY AU YONG

His living conditions have also improved. Last April, he moved out of the student dormitory to an apartment to get more rest, and not have to worry about others disrupting his schedule - a gruelling mix of school and training starting as early as 6am, six days a week.

On a regular day, he fits in 1 1/2 hours of swimming in the morning, class from about 9am to noon, weight training after lunch, and two more hours of swim practice in the late afternoon.

"I'm in bed by about 11pm every night," said Schooling, who doesn't see it as cutting into his social life.

"If I'm out till 4am in the morning, then I am going to suffer the next day, and in fact the next few days."

He is even mindful about getting sucked into a TV series like Game Of Thrones, which friends have been pressuring him to watch. "I know it will take hours and weeks, and I don't have a month to sit down every night to watch it," he said.

He knows all about focus. On his Olympic debut in 2012, he was told minutes before the 200m fly heats that his equipment was not on the approved list, got distracted and missed out on a semi-final spot.

It was one of the darkest moments on his ascent to the top. He had a hard time letting go of that loss, argued with his coach Sergio Lopez, and later hurt his ankle.

"The whole of the next year, it was hard to get back in the swing of things. It happens when you fall way short of your expectations," he said. "But I realised I was messing up... I had a good support group, parents, friends and Sergio, to dig me out of the hole."

Lopez, who is the head coach of Singapore, believes his charge is ready to take on the top names in the pool this summer.

"It just depends on who believes in it and commands the last 15m to 20m," he said. "If it's a good day, he can get a medal. Everyone needs a good day to get a medal."

To get in the zone for his race, Schooling said he might watch Peaceful Warrior, a movie about a gymnast who shattered his legs, before his big swim.

"It gets you fired up, I've watched it maybe four or five times," he said.

Music from his Spotify playlist, Jojo, will also be playing as he walks to the pool in headphones.

"I don't like people talking to me before the race, I just want to do my thing," said Schooling, who is likely to compete in the 100m fly, and either the 200m fly or the 100m freestyle, depending on the line-up.

With all this talk of a medal, and a nation's hopes resting on his shoulders, he said it helps to just block out the chatter: "I just think about what I have done to get here, who has been here to help me, I go back to the basics and break it down."

And while he says he would be satisfied with a medal, there is a quiet resolve that indicates otherwise: "Deep down I want to win.

"I know I can win, that would be my ultimate goal."

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What powers Schooling's performance

When Joseph Schooling is in Singapore, his meal of choice would be chai tau kway any day.

"The blacker the better," he told The Straits Times, as he sat down for a meal just outside Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he is training alongside Singaporean teammates for the Rio Olympics.

But in the US, with no local options to distract him, the ace swimmer usually grabs food from his athlete dining hall, at the University of Texas.

The first snack of the day is a banana or protein shake before plunging into the pool at 6am.

While the first actual meal is typically a breakfast sandwich with hashbrowns before heading to class.

His first meal is at leastthree and a half hoursbefore a race oncompetition days.Total : 1,152 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.PROTEIN SHAKE:262 calories,first snack ofthe day.SCRAMBLEDEGGS:197 caloriesBACON:120 caloriesHAM:91 caloriesWHOLEMEALBREAD:182 caloriesSAUSAGES:300 calories,usually 2*Calorie count is estimated.
His first meal is atleast three and ahalf hours before arace oncompetition days.Total :1,152 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi,kaya toast and eggs= 358 calories.PROTEIN SHAKE:262 calories,first snack ofthe day.SCRAMBLEDEGGS:197 caloriesBACON:120 caloriesHAM:91 caloriesWHOLEMEALBREAD:182 caloriesSAUSAGES:300 calories,usually 2*Calorie count is estimated.
His first meal is at least three and a half hoursbefore a race on competition days.PROTEIN SHAKE:262 calories, first snackof the day.SCRAMBLED EGGS:197 caloriesBACON:120 caloriesHAM:91 caloriesWHOLEMEALBREAD:182 caloriesSAUSAGES:300 calories (2)*Calorie count is estimated.Total: 1,152 calories

The special dining hall for athletes does not serve desserts or soft drinks and whole milk is not an option, only 1 per cent fat.

Both lunch and dinner are at the dining hall, where there is an array of food including burgers which are mainly for the hefty football players, said Schooling.

While there are no strict rules as to what he eats, he generally makes sure he has a balanced meal, and would stay away from heavy salad dressings or fried food.

Right before he goes to bed, he has one last meal of yoghurt and strawberries or cup noodles, just so he isn't too hungry during morning training.

Race days however, are different, he gets up earlier and makes sure he has his first meal three and a half hours before the race. This would usually include bananas and cereal and some form of carbohydrate and protein.

If there are more races ahead, he keeps himself fuelled on snacks of fruit.

"I don't eat big meals, I would just eat more times in the day," he said.

THAILAND'S RATCHANOK INTANON
Little May's big fight

BY MAY CHEN, SPORTS CORRESPONDENT

Bright red numerals are beaming from a digital clock on the wall, silently counting each minute in the early morning. No one is awake yet. The janitors who maintain the building have not begun work.

There is only the faint sound of someone walking in the dim and stuffy hall. Slow at first, with small and halting steps, towards the light shining through the glass panes.

The champion is walking to work.

WHEN TO WATCH RATCHANOK'S EVENTS

Aug 11 to 29

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Ratchanok during training at the Banthongyord Badminton School. ST PHOTO: MAY CHEN

Ratchanok Intanon knows this routine by heart; her days have started this way since she was six.

She knows this place even better; it is where she has been nurtured from infancy after her family arrived from the north-east.

Long before she became the toast of the Banthongyord Badminton School, and her name represented the very best of Thai sport, she was just the daughter of labourers who made thong yord (a traditional Thai dessert of egg yolk and sugar) for a living in a factory a stone's throw away.

The self-proclaimed tomboy played shooting games with boys on the factory grounds, but was also admittedly quite the cry-baby.

"I'd open the window from the second floor and hear her cries from below," recalled Xie Zhihua, who has been coaching at Banthongyord since moving from China in 1992.

Little Ratchanok slept on a mattress on the factory floor while her parents worked with scalding sugar around her, until factory owner Kamala Thongkorn scooped the toddler away from danger - and put her on the same court, where Xie was employed to train her own three children.

There was little indication that badminton would be anything more than an activity to keep this child occupied. Said Ratchanok's mother, Kumpan Suvarsara: "She never showed any signs of becoming a great athlete. She was laidback, small and thin."

She never showed any signs of becoming a great athlete. She was laid back, small and thin.
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Ratchanok during training at the Banthongyord Badminton School. PHOTO: NARIN KRUAKLAI/THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

Kumpan reckons that what their family lacked in material belongings has in turn gained her child an invaluable life lesson.

When Ratchanok was about 10, she asked for a mobile phone.

"At that time, she was surrounded by friends who mostly came from rich families," said Kumpan. "I told her we couldn't afford it, and that if she wanted something, she's going to have to earn it herself."

Ratchanok understood that if she won enough games, she could take home more than a trophy.

So she endured it all. The 5.30am training before school. Two more sessions after classes. Step off a plane from competitions overseas only to be taken straight back to court. Training until you cried.

Imagine a childhood like that. But it turned a child whom no one imagined would be a winner into a champion.

From the moment she clinched the national nine-and-under title as a seven-year-old, the narrative of her career has been one of winning when no one expected her to. It was apparent in the three straight world junior titles (2009-11), and again in her sensational 2013 upset of China's then-world No. 1 and Olympic champion Li Xuerui to become the youngest world champion.

It was apparent in the three consecutive world junior titles (2009-11), and again in her sensational 2013 upset of China's then world No. 1 and Olympic champion Li Xuerui to become badminton's youngest world champion.

Everything has changed for Ratchanok. Yet very little has become different.

Now a member of world badminton's elite, she is also Thailand's first world No. 1 in any sport, reaching the coveted ranking in April (she is now ranked No. 4).

Lucrative endorsement deals from telcos and beverage companies have come knocking, her toothy smile fitted in braces is plastered on billboards across Bangkok, and there is no escaping requests for photographs and autographs wherever she goes.

But the pride of Thailand has emerged from the stifling stratosphere of fame and wealth as the same Nong May - Thai for Little May - she has been affectionately known her whole life.

She is still the devoted daughter of honest, hard workers: Kumpan is into her 23rd year at Banthongyord; her father Winutchai runs a papaya salad shop on the next street.

She is still just another trainee of the school, who dons the same yellow-and-black uniform required of every student - with one distinction: She uses fresh supplies of shuttlecocks from tubes in a box labelled "For Ratchanok Only" while others use bent, battered ones.

She still shares a hostel room with three others in the school compound in the Bang Khae district more than an hour's drive from Bangkok, rather than live it up like a top athlete.

Her family is her mainstay and their rootedness her lodestar. She said: "It's one thing if I'm called a superstar because of what I did on court, but another to actually live like one. My parents are still here, they live simply.

"It's not a luxurious lifestyle, but it's a happy and better one."

Said coach Xie: "This is something that's very precious about Ratchanok. She had nothing in the past, she has everything now, but she hasn't let it get to her head or change her."

The narrative arc of her career, however, is now undeniably and irrevocably different. No one expecting anything from her once is now everyone demanding only success from her.

Her performance on court, and her behaviour off it, has an effect on - take a deep breath - her parents and 11-year-old brother; the badminton school that groomed her; its benevolent owner she sees as benefactor and also calls Mum; the coach who has known her from birth; the corporations that back her with millions; a city and ultimately, a country pining for its first Olympic badminton medal.

It is a burden that would crush even the strongest of weightlifters, yet does not overwhelm this shuttler's slender frame.

She stands tall today because she once crumbled.

Her mind wanders to London's Wembley Arena in 2012, the site of her most devastating loss. That Olympic quarter-final collapse while one game up and five points from victory against China's Wang Xin left her with sleepless nights.

At 17, she wanted to quit. Now, she knows that loss put her on the path to winning.

"It would be too much burden for a normal 21-year-old, but not me," she said. "I'm strong enough to shoulder the expectations. I've experienced so much in my athletic life and they've made me strong both physically and mentally.

"People pin their hopes on me because they believe in me. I also believe in myself."

This belief has sustained Ratchanok in the pursuit of three goals. The first, to become world champion, has long been checked off the to-do list. The world No. 1 ranking is out of the way too. All that remains is standing on an Olympic podium.

She said: "I'm older now, I'm strong, and I've got more experience. It's not just others who have high hopes, I'm expecting something from myself too.

"I'm not afraid to say I want to win a medal because I'm confident that I can really do it."

For someone who never thought she would be a representative - much less a champion - each moment competing with the Thai flag on her chest is a proud one.

"It's like I'm fighting for everyone in my country," she said. "It's why I make the sacrifices, endure the tough training, because not everyone can be given this honourable duty. Thailand may not be famous in many sports but I can show that we can succeed if we work hard enough."

Her badminton journey began with expediency - to get that mobile phone, to buy that washing machine for her mother (as she did after the 2013 World Championships) - but the quest is now fuelled by something greater.

She said: "I was born the daughter of poor factory workers. All the opportunities I've had should not have been available to someone like me."

It is past 9pm as she gingerly walks out of the hall, another gruelling, physical day in the books. The hall will go dark and quiet again.

The next sound it hears will be the footsteps of the champion, walking to work in the early morning.

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Ratchanok during her training session at the Banthongyord Badminton School. ST PHOTO: MAY CHEN

What powers Intanon's performance

Mealtimes are quite literally a family affair for Ratchanok as it is prepared by her mother, who works as a cook at the badminton school where she trains. The shuttler enjoys the hearty fare with her team-mates - even more so when it includes her favourites like spicy papaya salad.

She'll make sure there is more protein and carbohydrates in her meals before competitions as they are important for physical strength.

Total : 736 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.WATERMELON:172 caloriesSTIR-FRIEDMORNING GLORY(KANG KONG):50 caloriesSPICY CANNED FISH:194 caloriesSPICY TOM YAMSEAFOOD SOUP:120 caloriesWHITE RICE:200 calories*Calorie count is estimated.
Total : 736 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.WATERMELON:172 caloriesSTIR-FRIEDMORNING GLORY(KANG KONG):50 caloriesSPICY CANNEDFISH:194 caloriesSPICY TOM YAMSEAFOOD SOUP:120 caloriesWHITE RICE:200 calories*Calorie count is estimated.
*Typical Singapore breakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358 calories.WATERMELON:172 caloriesSTIR-FRIED MORNINGGLORY (KANG KONG):50 caloriesSPICYCANNEDFISH:194 caloriesSPICY TOM YAMSEAFOOD SOUP:120 caloriesWHITE RICE:200 calories*Calorie count is estimated.Total : 736 calories

Ratchanok says she tries to be careful about what she eats because she puts on weight easily, but still goes with her heart from time to time and eat what she wants. For the shuttler, that would likely mean her favourite dishes like stir-fried kang kong, spicy papaya salad and the occasional stewed pork leg.

MALAYSIA'S PANDELELA RINONG
Aiming for a bigger splash

BY TRINNA LEONG, MALAYSIA CORRESPONDENT

When Malaysian diver Pandelela Rinong snagged a podium finish with a 10m platform bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics, things were looking optimistic for the young athlete.

The first from her country to nab a Games medal outside of badminton, she found herself thrust into the limelight upon her return.

Four years later, as she prepares for Rio, expectations are running high that she will bring home another medal - a tall order for the 1.59m Sarawakian.

WHEN TO WATCH RINONG'S EVENTS (SGT)

Synchronised 10m platform
Wed, Aug 10 from 3 - 4.15am

10m platform
Prelims: Thur, Aug 18 from 2 - 5.10am
Semi-final: Thur, Aug 18 from 9 - 10.30pm
Final: Fri, Aug 19 from 3 - 4.30am

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Pandelela Rinong performs during the women's 10m springboard diving semi-final at the 15th FINA Swimming World Championship in Barcelona on July 24, 2013. PHOTO: EPA

"My aim is to break my personal record," the 23-year-old told The Straits Times, stopping short of admitting that a medal is on the cards.

To do so would mean surpassing the 385.05 points she amassed at last year's Fina World Championships in Kazan, Russia en route to Malaysia's first bronze at the event.

Achieving that would most likely mean a medal, although the hue of the metal will depend on whether she can further close the gap on her rivals.

In London, although she was third, she was 63.1 points behind the winning total. But at last year's World Championships, she cut the gap to 12 points.

"It's true we never got gold at the Olympics, but I don't close the door to that possibility," she said in an interview in March with Fina, the international body that governs water sports.

"Everyone in Malaysia expects an Olympic medal from me, and there is some public pressure. But I can cope with that."

She has had to shuttle between China and Malaysia a few times a year for much of her preparation for Rio. And it was on a trip back that she found time to speak to this newspaper at the dormitory that is a five-minute walk from the National Aquatic Centre pool in Bukit Jalil.

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Silver medalist Pandelela Rinong after the women's 10m platform diving final at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Scotland on July 31, 2014. PHOTO: AFP
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Rinong competes with fellow Malaysian diver, Mun Yee Leong at the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 31, 2012. PHOTO: AFP

Training as a diver since the age of eight, she joined the national diving team when she was only 14.

The gruelling routine of eight-hour sessions (with a break in between for lunch and a short rest) for 51/2 days a week has shaped her schedule throughout her life, as she commuted between training pools, dormitory and tournaments.

She follows a similar routine in China, where training is conducted for a month each time.

She already has plans lined up after Rio to backpack in South Korea in hopes of catching her favourite K-pop groups, Big Bang and 2NE1.

"I'll travel to Seoul, eat their food, visit the entertainment agency buildings," gushes Pandelela, revealing another side to the serious athlete whom Malaysians have come to admire.

Though she is a celebrity herself, the diver has remained grounded and unaffected by international achievements, those close to her said.

It's true we never got gold at the Olympics, but I don't close the door to that possibility.

While she has come a long way from living in a small town off Kuching, she has not forgotten her roots, often describing her childhood as one with "humble" beginnings.

"She's appreciative of people who trained and helped her," said Mae Chen, Malaysia's national diving team manager and secretary of the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia.

Growing up as an athlete meant that the youngster spent her teenage years away from home, seeing little of her family.

It is a sacrifice she marked as a downside to being a sportswoman, but says she "can't give up halfway".

There have been other difficult moments, most notably in 2014, when she was almost dropped from the national team after suffering an injury to her left knee just before crucial competitions - the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Diving World Cup.

"It was my lowest point. I had less than one month to a competition and the doctor said I couldn't dive for six months."

But Pandelela made sure that she bounced back from the incident by jumping back into the pool one week later.

"It was painful but I could still endure it," she said.

Out of the pool, she is completing her degree in sports management at Universiti Malaya, juggling assignments with her full-time commitment to diving. Though she could opt to live outside the training centre, she stuck to the dorm.

"That way she can sleep till the last moment!" her manager Jolene Knight said, as Pandelela burst out laughing.

Her managers described her as playful, cheeky and inquisitive when she is not training, attributes that have kept the diver well-loved by fans who follow her on social media.

With photos and captions that regular Malaysians can relate to - a photo of her holding a bowl of chilli pan mee, her favourite, garnered over 1,000 likes on Instagram - it is not hard to see why she is one of the most popular personalities in Malaysian sport.

Her popularity is helped by the fact that she continues to make waves in the sport.

Currently ranked third in the world for the 10m platform by Fina, she is a regular medallist on the world stage, with her most recent success a bronze for the synchronised 10m platform, with long-time partner Leong Mun Yee, during April's World Series leg in Russia.

Based on her current performance, team manager Chen forecasts another medal from Pandelela during the Rio Olympics.

"If Lela can maintain five dives without fumbling, she stands a good chance of winning the bronze," she said.

Unfazed by the country's heavy expectations, Pandelela just hopes that her performance as a diver would help create more interest in the sport.

"In Malaysia, diving is not as reputable as badminton or cycling, so we need this kind of exposure to make the sport more popular."

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What powers Rinong's performance

A simple rice porridge is what the Malaysian diving star usually gets for breakfast at the Bukit Jalil Sports Centre where she trains. When competitions draw near, that is switched to oatmeal with almond milk. Once in a while, however, she indulges in her favourite food: chilli pan mee.

"It's not advisable to eat chilli pan mee too often, but it helps to lift my mood and helps me survive training for another day. When I train in China, I don't get to have Malaysian food so I pack some sambal with me."

Total: 230 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.COFFEE:30 caloriesPORRIDGE WITH MEAT:200 calories,
Total : 230 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.COFFEE:30 caloriesPORRIDGE WITHMEAT:200 calories,
*Typical Singapore breakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358 calories.*Calorie count is estimated.Total : 230 caloriesCOFFEE:30 caloriesPORRIDGEWITH MEAT:200 calories,

Her coach also lets athletes enjoy a cuppa before afternoon training so the caffeine can help wake them up.

VIETNAM'S HOANG XUAN VINH
Fields of gold

BY JONATHAN WONG, SPORTS CORRESPONDENT

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.

WHEN TO WATCH VINH'S EVENTS (SGT)

10m air pistol
Qualification: Sat, Aug 6 at 7.30pm
Final: Sun, Aug 7 at 2.30am

50m air pistol
Qualification: Wed, Aug 10 at 8pm
Final: Thur, Aug 11 at 3.15am

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Hoang Xuan Vinh at the National Sports Training Center in Hanoi during one of his training videos. PHOTO: VIET NAM NEWS

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.

I do think failure in the past is the good lesson and reminder to keep working harder.
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The Vietnamese flag on the wall at the National Training Center provides Hoang with a patriotic reminder while he trains. PHOTO: VIET NAM NEWS

Defeat is part of an athlete's lexicon but so is persevering and Vinh, 41, cuts a serene figure when The Straits 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."

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."

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Hoang Xuan Vinh is on par with some of the world's best shooters. PHOTO: VIET NAM NEWS

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.

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What powers Vinh's performance

When Vietnamese shooter Hoang Xuan Vinh is back training in Hanoi, he usually has his breakfast at the National Sports Training Center.

While the menu is changed weekly and decided by an appointed nutritionist, all national athletes are given the same food, which is cooked and prepared by the cookhouse staff.

Total : 992 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.MILO:680 caloriesCHOCO-PIE:120 caloriesTRADITIONAL ‘BANH DA'NOODLE SOUP:192 calories
Total : 992 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.MILO:680 caloriesCHOCO-PIE:120 caloriesTRADITIONAL ‘BANH DA'NOODLE SOUP:192 calories
*Typical Singapore breakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358 calories.*Calorie count is estimated.Total : 992 caloriesMILO:680 caloriesCHOCO-PIE:120 caloriesTRADITIONAL ‘BANH DA'NOODLE SOUP:192 calories

Traditional Banh Da rice noodles, with fried beancurd, boiled tomatoes, pork balls, minced pork meat, one poached egg. The pork is sometimes substituted with fresh crab meat.

Two packets of Milo, one to drink during breakfast and one after morning training. Most national athletes are given one packet but as an elite athlete, Hoang is given two.

Dessert is usually something sweet, such as a chocolate pie cake.

PHILIPPINE'S HIDILYN DIAZ
Uplifting high hopes

BY RAUL DANCEL, PHILIPPINES CORRESPONDENT

Three times in 2012, Hidilyn Diaz tried to lift 118kg of iron and steel in the clean and jerk, and each time she had to let go before she could hold it over her head. It was just too heavy for the barely 1.52m tall weightlifter.

It was her second Olympics. She was one of just a dozen athletes the Philippines managed to send to London. Her first, four years earlier in Beijing, ended with a promise. London ended with three disappointing letters: DNF - Did Not Finish.

London was a hurried affair. She had only a month and three weeks to prepare; before that, she was still at a local competition. She found herself cramming inside an empty hall in Guildford, near the British capital, where she trained mostly on her own.

In hindsight, carrying the Philippine flag at the London opening ceremony might have been another wrong call. "Of course, I was proud. But I felt everyone was looking at me. I felt their expectations, and the pressure that went with it," she said.

WHEN TO WATCH DIAZ'S EVENTS (SGT)

Mon, Aug 8 from 2.30 - 4.30am

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Hidilyn Diaz's "did not finish" result at London 2012 is now motivating her towards a podium finish at Rio Olympics. PHOTO: PACE MAGAZINE/FREYO APP

Next month, she will get to march behind the flag - as woman paddler Ian Lariba has been given the honour.

Diaz has clinched a berth for what will likely be her third and last shot at an Olympic medal.

Her road to Rio began when she was just 11, when she saw her cousins lifting weights near where she lived in Zamboanga, a city some 1,000km south of the capital Manila which was wrestling with a Muslim insurgency.

"They were not even using proper bar-bells; just wood carved from tree trunks. I was curious, so I joined them, and I enjoyed it. I saw that I could excel in it," she said.

She realised that she could lift weights far heavier than what most boys her age could.

Soon, weightlifting became more than just a way to pass the time. It became, for the daughter of a motorised rickshaw driver with six other children, a way to stay in school and out of poverty.

"It was just a game, but then I realised I could get scholarships from it. That was how I got through high school and college," she said.

Of course, I was proud. But I felt everyone was looking at me. I felt their expectations, and the pressure that went with it.
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Hidilyn Diaz has a strict diet to help her lose weight while retaining and building muscle mass. PHOTO: PACE MAGAZINE/FREYO APP

It did not take her long to dominate local matches. National coaches saw her during the Mindanao Friendship Games in 2003. A year later, at 14, she landed a spot in the national team.

She won a bronze medal at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand.

In 2008, just 17, she was already at her first Olympics, in Beijing. Competing in the 58kg category, she lifted 85kg in the snatch, and nearly double her weight - 107kg - in the clean and jerk, for a 192kg total, breaking her Philippine record. But it was not enough for a medal.

Then came the London heartbreaker in 2012.

She has since managed to pick up the pieces. At 25, she has emerged as a more seasoned athlete.

She won a silver at the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar. Last year, she won a gold at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Thailand, and a bronze at the World Weightlifting Championships in Houston, Texas.

Short on resources, the Philippines is again fielding a ragtag contingent of athletes for Rio 2016.

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Hidilyn Diaz can now lift as much as 225kg which would give her a shot at silver in Rio. PHOTO: PACE MAGAZINE/FREYO APP

Diaz has the best shot at bringing home a medal, which will be a big deal for this sports-obsessed nation of 100 million. The last time a Filipino stood on an Olympic podium was in 1996, when light-flyweight boxer Mansueto Velasco snatched a silver.

For Rio, Diaz has been training hard since May 20 at a mountaintop camp in Fuzhou, in China's Fujian province.

Playing it smart, she has decided to compete at a lower weight of 53kg to increase her chances of landing on the podium.

At 53kg, her 213kg total in the World Championships was just 6kg short of a bronze in London. She believes she can now lift as much as 225kg this time, which will give her a shot at a silver at least.

Diaz trains six days a week, from 6am till about 5pm.

Mornings are spent jogging, sprinting and cross training. She lifts bar-bells from 9am till 11am, and then again from 2pm to 5pm. To clear her head, she hikes up a mountain trail. Wednesdays and Fridays are heavy training days, when she lifts 80 per cent to 90 per cent of her goal.

She tries not to think about winning a medal.

"I don't want to talk about it, until I already have a medal in my hand. All I can say is that I'm doing my best. That's how I deal with pressure," she said.

She said what really motivates her now is the satisfaction she gets from inspiring younger women to pursue weightlifting. Already, a 12-year-old cousin is breaking records as she follows in Diaz's footsteps.

A medal, though, will not hurt.

If she wins a gold medal, she is guaranteed 10 million pesos (S$287,000) under an incentive programme approved by the Filipino government. A silver will earn her five million pesos, and a bronze, two million pesos.

The instant fame may also lead to a beeline of corporate sponsors, and perhaps a career in sports entertainment.

Right now, all she gets is a monthly allowance - about 26,000 pesos - from the Philippine Sports Commission. The agency also covers expenses for her training, conditioning, diet coaches and travel.

Life after Rio for the still-single Diaz means going back to school and working to boost weightlifting's profile as a sport women can take up.

"I decided this will be my last Olympics, but sometimes we can never tell," she said.

As for what she hopes to leave behind, she said: "I've been in weightlifting for 14 years. I was born to be a weightlifter. I'd like to think that I was born to inspire women to pursue their dreams."

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What powers Diaz's performance

Since she slid to the 53kg category from 58kg, the challenge for Olympian weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz has been to lose weight while building mass

Privately run nutritions firm iChef Concepts and Solutions had been preparing special meals for her before she left for China.

Her breakfast consisted of 10 eggs – two whole, eight whites – whey protein, fruits, high-fibre wheat bread and grains, sweet potato, brown rice, and occasionally some wheat pasta to break the monotony.

To cut her weight with the least amount of muscle loss, Diaz has had to get used to eating beets, quinoa, spinach and kale.

Total : 902 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.10 HARD-BOILED EGGS(8 EGG WHITE ONLY,2 WHOLE):292 caloriesSTEAMEDSWEETPOTATOES:330 caloriesMIXED FRUITS:64 caloriesBROWN RICE:216 calories
Total : 902 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.10 HARD-BOILED EGGS(8 EGG WHITE ONLY,2 WHOLE):292 caloriesSTEAMEDSWEETPOTATOES:330 caloriesMIXED FRUITS:64 caloriesBROWN RICE:216 calories
*Typical Singapore breakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358 calories.*Calorie count is estimated.Total : 902 calories10 HARD-BOILED EGGS(8 EGG WHITE ONLY,2 WHOLE):292 caloriesSTEAMEDSWEETPOTATOES:330 caloriesMIXED FRUITS:64 caloriesBROWN RICE:216 calories

"Hidilyn had a hard time adjusting not to the volume of the food but the kind of ingredients that we were using," said iChef's Allan Jose.

In China, breakfast is just coffee and a buffet of vegetables, usually with plenty of mushrooms. She also has white eggs with ham, which she supplements with brown rice and sweet potatoes.

INDONESIA'S MARIA LONDA
Making it to the big leap

BY ARLINA ARSHAD, INDONESIA CORRESPONDENT

Maria Natalia Londa launches herself into the air and lands gracefully onto the soft sand of Bali's famous Legian beach, oblivious to the looks from curious tourists in bathing suits under their beach umbrellas.

Earlier, the 26-year-old had jogged along the coast and raced up and down the stone steps nearby, jostling for space with touts, street masseurs and shopkeepers selling sarongs and surfboards.

Her methods may not be the most orthodox, but this is how Indonesia's undisputed queen of jumps has been training. And who is to argue? After all, she has earned the right to take on the world's best at next month's Olympic Games, an event she considers "the biggest dream of my lifetime".

She is among 28 competitors, including two in athletics, sent by Indonesia to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

WHEN TO WATCH LONDA'S EVENTS (SGT)

Long jump
Qualification: Wed, Aug 17 from 7.15 - 9.50am
Final: Thur, Aug 18 from 4.45 - 10.05am

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Indonesia's greatest hope for a podium finish trains amidst sun-bathing tourists on Bali's famous Legian beach. ST PHOTO: NASHYO HANSEL

Her Olympic debut will mark a huge leap for a girl whose own father had doubts whether she could function normally.

Away from the touristy beaches, the peaceful Kapal neighbourhood, with hectares of rice fields in every direction, is where she calls home.

In an interview over hot chocolate with The Straits Times last month, she candidly shared her Olympic journey, her struggles and hopes for the discipline she picked up at the age of 10, almost by fate.

Born with smaller lungs than normal, she was often out of breath. She also suffered from clogged blood vessels in her legs, and subsequent surgery had left them weak and one leg slightly shorter.

In a bid to toughen her up because of her condition, her late father Kamilus would force her to run for 30 minutes every morning to a nearby stadium, while he rode on his bicycle and cheered her along.

It was at this stadium that she found former national long jumper, and now coach of 16 years, I Ketut Pageh, training on the sand pit.

Pageh remembers the "small and skinny girl" who climbed trees to steal fruit but never cried from falls.

"She came every single day to watch me for the entire two hours without fail. She would then jump on her own. She's a natural talent but what amazed me most was her drive," he said.

Londa added: "Jumping hurt my legs but the joy made me forget the pain. I would ice them at night and do it all over again the next day."

Jumping hurt my legs but the joy made me forget the pain. I would ice them at night and do it all over again the next day.
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Stretching is an important part of Maria's training regime as well as her strict, home-cooked diet. ST PHOTO: NASHYO HANSEL

He took her under his wings and two years later, at 12, Londa came in third in the national junior competition. She went on to win every domestic competition in the long jump and triple jump.

"My father was ecstatic. He told me athletics would be my ticket out of poverty," she said.

Her interior decorator father, seamstress mother Anastasia Ari Ningsih, with younger twin brothers Rico and Riki, had lived in a tiny house with "no windows and a thin plywood acting as a door".

They had simple meals of rice and vegetables. She and her brothers had no toys, borrowed used books and wore hand-me-downs.

Even her first shoes were a used pair of China-made Panther brand trainers given by an instructor.

"I wore them for three years until they literally fell apart," she said. "I would sew Salonpas medicated plaster over the holes, otherwise my toes would stick out of them. There were so many holes; it became impossible to patch them anymore."

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Maria overcame health problems as a child to become Indonesia's only athletics representative at the Rio Olympics. ST PHOTO: NASHYO HANSEL

Competitive athletics turned her life around financially.

With prize money, grants from the government and sponsorship, she has since bought a house for her mother and another for herself. She is also supporting her brothers through university.

Her boyfriend, I Made Sukariata, a national athlete whom she plans to marry after the Olympics, said the devout Catholic is always grateful. "She never whines when life doesn't go her way, but never forgets to be thankful when it does."

Londa's first international foray began at 19 when she entered the 2009 SEA Games in Laos. She finished third.

She went one better in Palembang 2011, earning silver medals in the women's long and triple jumps, despite being stricken with grief over her father's death.

"I felt so lost without him and wanted to give up, but support from my coach and family kept me going," she said.

In Myanmar 2013, she finally struck gold - taking both jump titles and even set a new national triple jump record, an impressive 14.17m.

At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, she announced her arrival as a continental power, taking the long jump gold - Indonesia's first athletics title at the Asiad in 16 years.

Her biggest dream turned into reality at last year's SEA Games. Not only did she retain her two titles, but her new best of 6.70m in the long jump was also enough for her to qualify for the Rio Olympics. The distance would have put her in the final at the 2012 Games, where she would have been eighth.

But the exertion from the Games and training for the Olympics took their toll, leaving her with torn ligaments in both knees. She was out for three months earlier this year.

She has since returned to practice but has not been able to break her record, reaching only 6.38m in a national event in May. The top four contenders, her coach said, have already surpassed 7m.

But Londa is not rattled. With her recovering knees, she would be happy if she could smash her personal best and finish in the top 10. Anything better is a bonus.

"I have practised hard and I leave it all to God. Winning or losing, I trust that his decision is the best for me," she said.

She had continued training on the gravel pit and the island's beaches - but was careful not to aggravate her injury - even as late as May, as a synthetic long-jump pit in Bali was still under construction.

Pageh had also adopted water therapy to avoid stressing her joints, making her stand knee-deep in sea water and run a short distance, lifting each foot above the waterline as she surges forward.

"We don't have much time but we must not give up. If I've to be completely honest, it's not going to be easy but we cannot force it," he said.

But true to her never-say-die spirit, Londa said: "Nobody can predict what happens on the actual day."

She said she would be visiting her father's grave to get his blessings before heading to Brazil.

"When he was alive, he told everyone, 'My daughter is a champ'," she said. "All I know is when I jump at the Olympics, I will see his face telling me he is proud of me."

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What powers Londa's performance

A nutritionist visits her to make recommendations, but she cooks her own meals.

Her usual diet consists of a fistful of rice, a palm-sized portion of meat, and two palm-sized portions of vegetables. She also takes supplements of calcium and glucosamine tablets for bone and joints.

Total : 781 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.WHITE RICE:200 caloriesEGG:92 caloriesSTEAMED VEGETABLES:112 caloriesHOT CHOCOLATE:77 calories2 SAUSAGES:300 calories
Total : 781 calories*Typical Singaporebreakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358calories.*Calorie count is estimated.WHITE RICE:200 caloriesEGG:92 caloriesSTEAMED VEGETABLES:112 caloriesHOT CHOCOLATE:77 calories2 SAUSAGES:300 calories
*Typical Singapore breakfast of kopi, kayatoast and eggs = 358 calories.*Calorie count is estimated.Total : 781 caloriesWHITE RICE:200 caloriesEGG:92 caloriesSTEAMEDVEGETABLES:112 caloriesHOT CHOCOLATE:77 calories2 SAUSAGES:300 calories

Her favourite food is Rujak, or fruit and vegetable salad with hot peanut sauce, which she gets little chance to eat.

She completely abstains from anything hot, sour or fried when she is training for any competition, as it will affect her recovery and causes her feet to swell.

Read more about South-east Asia's Olympic dreams with Rohit Brijnath's Sporting minnows also need bold vision.

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