HANOI: When a 13-year-old Nguyen Van Duong stepped into the ring for the first time he weighed just 33 kilograms and was promptly nicknamed "Little Chicken" by the coach.
More than a decade later, he will travel to Tokyo as the first Vietnamese boxer to compete at an Olympic Games since Seoul 1988.
"I come to the Olympics with the ultimate target -- winning a medal," the 24-year-old featherweight (57kg) fighter told AFP from his training camp in Ho Chi Minh City.
Duong's extraordinary journey from Vietnam's Bac Giang -- an industrial northern province home to factories supplying Samsung and Foxconn -- to Tokyo later this month has astounded even the athlete himself.
A ruthless performance in 2020 against Thailand's seasoned Chatchai Decha Butdee -- which saw him dispatch his opponent in just 47 seconds to qualify for the Olympics -- totally surprised him.
"I couldn't believe that I won the match that quick," he said.
He had lost to the same fighter in a unanimous decision in the Southeast Asian Games final a few months earlier.
- Small but lethal force -
As a pint-sized 13-year-old who was towered over by other kids his age, Duong initially found it hard to be taken seriously as a boxer.
When he appeared one day to train with the national police team, the coach turned to the teenager's cousin and said: "You brought this little chicken here -- how long will it take to turn him into a boxer?"
The moniker stuck. But Duong soon surpassed all expectations -- winning the National Youth Boxing Championship in 2010, joining the national youth team and becoming a small but lethal force in the ring.
This year, Duong has been almost completely locked down for months on end at his training camp, with no athletes allowed out due to the latest coronavirus wave in Ho Chi Minh City.
Rising at 5.30 am each day, he works hard on his fitness - running and hoisting dumbbells, aware of the huge challenge that lies ahead of him.
"The qualifiers and Olympics Games are totally different, so I must improve in terms of technique, tactics, speed... everything."
But the pandemic has made preparations particularly tough, he admits, and he has previously spoken about the huge psychological and physical toll of the last year.
With local tournaments cancelled, crucial match practice opportunities were lost.
"When I got the ticket for the Olympics, I was in my best form, physically and mentally... I wanted to keep fighting, but the Games were postponed and I felt a little bit down."
Still, he remains determined as he counts down the days to Tokyo.
"I will try hard to deliver my best performance," he said. "To bring victory to my homeland, my country and to all boxing fans."