Two-time Olympic gold medalist retraces roots to Vietnam


Two-time Olympic gold medalist retraces roots to Vietnam

By MARGIE MASON Associated Press

Sunday, April 27, 2003

Tu Son, Vietnam – For years, Olympic swimmer Catherine Mai Lan Fox put a desire to compete ahead of the dream to explore her Vietnamese roots.

When she dived gracefully into a weathered concrete pool in this town north of Hanoi, she realized she had combined both ambitions.

Fox, 25, has hungered to visit her mother’s native land since she was a child, but a rigorous training regimen always prevented her – until now.

The two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist is spending three weeks traveling Vietnam from north to south with her father and cousin. She will end up in southern Can Tho province to visit relatives she’s never met and the place where her parents married more than 30 years ago.

“This trip has been on my mind for the past 15 years,” she said. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.”

But Fox didn’t leave her swim cap at home in San Francisco. Instead, she’s sharing techniques with young Vietnamese swimmers and instilling in them a confidence that they also can be champions.

A line of dripping youngsters walked beside Fox as she glided swiftly through the water in the pool at the University of Sports and Physical Culture No. 1 in Tu Son. She demonstrated floating drills and coached them on how to get the most speed and distance out of each stroke.

“Mai Lan is not very big and not as tall as other foreign swimmers, but she has proved that she can win anything,” said Vu Thi Men, a former women’s national champion in Vietnam who coaches youth and national teams. “The swimmers here can learn from her and also learn that they can earn good results even being as short as she is.”

Fox, who was part of the winning 400-meter freestyle and medley relays in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, admitted to feeling a little insecure because it had been months since her last time in the water. But the young swimmers hoping to make the cut for this year’s Southeast Asian Games in Vietnam watched every move as if she were training for a major meet.

“If you’re allowed, you can take part in the Vietnamese national team,” joked Dinh Viet Hung from the Committee of Physical Culture and Sports. “We consider you as Vietnamese, and we do hope that one day (you) will receive the gold medal with the Vietnamese flag.”

Fox said that echoed the same welcome she received from nearly everyone in Vietnam, a place that has always defined a major part of who she is.

“The people are wonderful, the humor is wonderful,” she said. “They’re not shy at all, so I kinda see where I get that from to a certain extent.”

Her father, Tom Fox, met To Kim Hoa while he was working as a reporter for The New York Times during the Vietnam War. He spoke fluent Vietnamese after spending two years previously working for a volunteer group. Hoa was a social worker helping injured children when the two fell in love. They were married in a combined traditional Vietnamese and Catholic wedding.

“In December 1972, she was pregnant and it was getting difficult to find the right medical centers,” Tom Fox said. “We decided to come home.”

The couple had three children in Detroit before moving to Kansas City, Kan., where they discovered their youngest child’s affinity for swimming.

“We tried to teach the children to swim early. You know, you dunk them in the water and you pop them up and dunk them and pop them up, but Catherine never wanted just to be dunked, she wanted us to let her go,” Tom Fox recalled. “We thought that in a previous life she might have been a dolphin or something.”

Catherine Fox began training when she was 13. And after committing to work for a slot on the Olympic team, there was no time between school and the 30 hours of practice each week to consider a trip to Vietnam.

Her whole family, including her older brother and sister, all got a chance to explore their heritage. But she was forced to stay at home.

“I said, ‘Someday, after you finish your swimming, I’ll bring you to Vietnam,”‘ Tom Fox said, adding that an arthritic knee kept Hoa from joining them. “This trip is to introduce her to Vietnam, and it’s sort of that promise I made back then.”

Catherine Fox missed the 2000 Sydney Olympics by a fraction of a second. Although she was disappointed, she said it was time to discover new interests that swimming had prevented her from exploring.

The Stanford graduate is working as a massage therapist and taking hand balancing and contortion classes at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts. But she’s not sure what the future holds: She may even return to Vietnam one day to help the communist country train the next gold medalist.

“I’m just trying to continue to learn,” she said. “I would love to come back, though, and continue to work in Vietnam and learn from them as well.”

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