Duong Thuy Vi: The acrobatic artistry of Vietnam's Wushu champion

Story highlights

  • Vietnamese martial artist became a world champion in 2013
  • Duong trains six days a week, seven in build up to tournaments
  • Sport of Wushu derived from ancient Chinese martial art
  • Duong displays incredible athleticism in routine that uses spears and swords
She may only be a slip of a woman, but Duong Thuy Vi's athletic talent should not be taken lightly.
A star in the martial art of Wushu, the 21-year-old Vietnamese clinched gold at the World Championships and the Southeast Asian Games in 2013 and was crowned champion at the 17th Asian Games held in South Korea last September.
Having won numerous titles as a junior -- she was a national, regional and world champion -- Duong hasn't tired of the winning feeling in her fledgling senior career.
"Each time I win and stand on the podium, I feel that I truly have won myself," Duong told CNN's Human to Hero series.
"When they put the gold medal on me, I feel so emotional, as if it is a dream."
Growing up in Hanoi, Duong wasn't particularly interested in the sport and has an overweight relative to thank for sparking her career into life.
"When I was small, I didn't know anything about Wushu," she said. "I only knew that martial arts could make you healthy. One of my cousins who was very fat practiced Wushu to lose weight and I asked to come with him."
Her cousin's interest may have waned pretty quickly -- "he quit after a week -- he is still fat!" she jokes -- but Duong has persevered and now tucks into a rigorous daily diet of exercise, training in both the morning and afternoon six days a week, sometimes longer.
"Before important tournaments, we even practice on Sunday mornings -- the programs consist of physical and technique training."
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The modern sport of Wushu started life in ancient China as a form of self defense, explains Daniel Kainan Pan, a former member of the Great Britain Wushu team.
"Traditional Wushu can be said to be the ancestor of all martial arts like Aikido, Karate, Judo -- they all came from ancient Chinese martial arts," Kainan Pan says.
"What really sets Wushu apart (from other martial arts) is that it's more of a complete system, in the sense that in the fighting aspect there are grabs and throws but also punches and kicks -- you can use anything you want.
"From a performance aspect, it's almost comparable to gymnastics -- everyone does 720 (-degree) rotations and lands in the splits."
There are also weapons to wield in Duong's non-combat discipline -- female competitors perform their individual routines with either a double-edged straight sword (Jian) or a spear (Qiang) while the men use a slightly different type of sword, a Dao, and a wooden staff called a Gun.
"Everything about Wushu is equally very difficult," Duong says.
"It requires you to be persistent in training to combine the movements of your head, your arms, your legs and your whole body. It's very important that all the movements are coordinated carefully."
As she roams around the floor space at the gym in downtown Hanoi and casually performs eye-watering stretches on the stall bars, it's clear that this dedication has paid off -- her supple, flowing movements have a balletic quality to them.
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This combination of strength and grace is one of Wushu's most appealing aspects, says Kainan Pan, but also one of the hardest to master.
"The sport may be derived from traditional martial arts, but the movements are more beautiful and more emphasized," he says.
"You really need to be able to stretch and do the front splits -- flexibility is really difficult. The second thing is athletic ability -- there are lots of jumps and a high degree of rotation."
Kainan Pan grew up idolizing Chinese Wushu legend turned actor Jet Li, but for Duong it is her compatriot Nguyen Thuy Hien who has spurred her on.
The 35-year-old, who now coaches the sport, made history in 1993 when she won a world championship gold medal at the age of 14 before repeating the feat four years later.
"She was the first person to win a world championship gold medal for the Vietnamese Wushu team," Duong says.
Duong will have a chance to emulate Nguyen at the World Championships in Jakarta, Indonesia next October. Victory will be another acrobatic step towards her goal of mastering both the physical and the mental challenges of the ancient martial art.
"In my opinion, in order to become a great athlete, one must have qualities of persistence, creativity and the ability to think, understand and sense what you are doing," she said.