Khoa Nguyen Reflects on the Long Road to Becoming a US Olympian

By Matt Hetherington | Aug. 12, 2019, 12:32 p.m. (ET)


For US Olympian Khoa Nguyen, the moment he walked through to tunnel to enter the Olympic Stadium for the mindblowing Opening Ceremony in Sydney, 2000, was the moment it all felt real. 

It had been a long road for Nguyen to reach that stage, having gone through the painful experience of being first alternate to the 1992 team, to missing out on the 1996 by a few points - an experience he describes as 'devastating', given his preparation overseas. That preparation had included 3 months of training in Sweden and playing in their professional league. 

Indeed the story of Khoa Nguyen is an inspiring one, of a player who began playing with his brothers at the age of 9, moving to play in local clubs in Saigon which motivated him to practice harder. He notes at that time he had less resources at his disposal than many of his competitors and felt the need to train much harder to achieve the same level. Success starting in the junior events was a big motivating factor for him to continue with the sport over those years. 

As he came through college, table tennis finally became an Olympic Sport. It was 1988. 

"In 1988, Table Tennis had just became a medal sport in the Olympics which was epic news for me. During that time, I was nearly done with college. I knew that I could have put in more effort in preparing myself to make the team but I didn't change my normal practice schedule because graduation was near. Although it would have been great if I had qualified in 1988, I wasn't disappointed. To make the Olympic team, I had to have dedicated more time to training and playing tournaments," says Nguyen, who would go on to compete in two Olympic Games for the United States.

In 1992 he was an alternate behind Butler and O'Neill, after defeating all of the top Canadians at the North American Trial. But it was 1996 which could have potentially ended the Olympic Dream.

He was 5-0 before being upset by Darko Rop and losing out in deciding matches after - leaving him again as the first alternate for the team.

At this time Khoa admits, "After 1996, I actually didn't want to play anymore and transitioned my focus to my career. After I had my firstdaughter, I stopped playing for 2 years and thought my Olympic dream was over."

It was a work manager and gymnastics coach who helped bring Khoa back to his original dream in 1998. He recalls to support and encouragement, and also the help to create a schedule which balanced his career and training. Juggling that with coaching from his Father, brother and also a friend, and with more resources to aid his cause - his dream to make the team was born again. 

By 1999, Khoa was 33 years old, but determined to reach his goal. 

Through several practice partners, a detailed plan, and many sacrifices and balancing of a full-time job, Khoa was back on the path.

Finally surpassing the hurdle and making the team was a huge accomplishment for Nguyen and a satisfying pay-off for the years of dedication. 'Mindblowing' was how he described the moment of walking through the tunnel and into Olympic Arena for the Opening Ceremony in Sydney.

After 2000, Nguyen was burnt out, but not ready to pass up another potential opportunity to repeat the experience of an event like no other. 

Four years later he would contest the 2004 North American Olympic Trials, for a chance to compete in his second Olympic Games.

"For once, I felt everything that I had accomplished so far came together right on that day. I was at the peak of feeling the strongest I have ever felt physically andmentally. I was a better player in 1996 but at the 2004 Trials, I played my best. I was more confident and my training before the Trials could not have been any better. I had my older brother in my corner who knew what I was going through. He was also my coach as well back in 2000," Nguyen reflects.

His final match was against Bence of Canada, a match where the opposition had nothing to lose, relaxed and feeling no pressure - already out of contention. For Khoa Nguyen, everything was on the line in this match. 

"It was a tough match for me because I had never played him before," says Khoa, who was able to overcome the challenge and reach another career milestone. 

Khoa Nguyen's story is one worthy of telling to any aspiring athlete, hopeful of one day reaching the Olympic Games. Persistence and sheer determination to reach the pinnacle goal of his career was what enabled him to play in 2 Olympic Games for the United States of American, even at 37 years of age. 

"Looking back, it was more about the journey than anything else. The early morning practice sessions, getting my friends to wake up and practice, hours and hours at the gym, time away from family, careers on hold, very little sleep, lots of traveling to play in tournaments. But it was all worth it. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t my Dad's persistence and the support from my Mom."

Khoa Nguyen's tale is one which has well and truly earned him his place in the USATT Hall of Fame. Thank you Khoa for sharing more insights into a wonderful career!