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Monday, April 24, 2000

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
My Lien Nguyen practices at the University of Hawaii track
for next month's "Face of America" relay that
will start in San Francisco.

UH student
fulfills role
model goal

My Lien Nguyen will take part
in a cross-country relay
for disabled athletes

Vietnam refugee at age 5

By Susan Kreifels


My Lien Nguyen lives "in between two worlds."

She swims, cycles, rides horses, kayaks and snow skis. She's driven her van cross-country, camping out alone in the Rocky Mountains.

But walking is another story. It's so slow and takes so much out of her sometimes, that she normally uses a wheelchair instead of a cane to get to classes at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. And sitting in front of computers for the long hours demanded of a grad student is painful.

Not that her disabilities have ever stopped her. In fact, the determined woman hopes they will take her a long way this summer in inspiring people across the nation.

Nguyen, 29, was chosen to take part in the "Face of America" -- a relay in which close to 100 athletes of various disabilities, ages and ethnicities will handcycle, canoe, kayak and ride on horseback across America.

Nguyen prayed for an opportunity to be a role model and help people reach "success in an environment they never thought possible. I've been given a chance to try."

The event is sponsored by the North Carolina-based charity World T.E.A.M. Sports to bring awareness to thousands of miles of rail-trails across the country -- railroad tracks converted to public trails.

She touches people's lives

Nguyen's team will start from San Francisco May 13 and meet up with another one from Boston on June 3 in St. Louis. The teams will stop along the way to speak to communities about their challenges.

Nguyen, from Rochester, N.Y., has raised $1,800, half the funds she needs to participate.

Friend Jay Feldman, a UH-Manoa graduate student, believes in Nguyen. "She's the kind of person who changes the world," Feldman said, "by touching a lot of people's lives."

The relay is one of several turning points this year in Nguyen's life, which has seen many unexpected curves since a mountain-bike accident in 1995 left her an "incomplete quadriplegic" with damage to all four limbs.

Soon came another life-changing experience. Born of a wartime relationship between her Vietnamese mother and an American military pilot, she and family members escaped the battle-ravaged country by boat in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. She had given up hope of ever meeting her father, but a computer search brought them together three years ago.

This summer the doctoral student hopes to return to Vietnam for the first time to do research in ethnobotany, the relationship between people and plants.

On the spiritual side, she's completing courses to become a practicing member of the Roman Catholic Church after being baptized decades ago in Vietnam. And she's cycling again for the first time.

"I'm completing all these circles," Nguyen said.

Along the way, she's lifted other people as well. Helen Lee, a retiree who met her at St. Pius X Church in Manoa, said Nguyen "talks and acts like her disability is not there. I find her very uplifting. I'm older than her but she taught me a lot."

At the peak of her physical fitness five years ago, Nguyen was racing over rough terrain near Silver Springs, Md., where she attended college. Alone and overconfident, she took her eyes off the trail for a split second, long enough to send her flying over her bicycle. Her face smashed into the earth, her fingers tingled, and she blacked out. Hikers later found her.

In the beginning, Nguyen couldn't use her hands and had no movement from the chest down. But she always believed she would fully recover, and charged into physical therapy. Eighteen months later she had regained much of her movement but only partial use of her legs, and she realized she would always live with disabilities.

'Everything is falling in place'

Nguyen thought she might have to abandon her goal of becoming a field researcher. But then UH-Manoa offered her a teaching assistantship, the campus had a good program, and she was closer to Vietnam.

"I had a dream for a long time, and I'm not ready to give up," she said. "Everything is falling in place."

Not easily, however.

'Freedom is what it's about'

School has been physically challenging because it's difficult for her to sit long periods as well as walk. She has adapted by kneeling at the computer and standing in class. "My body is telling me something completely different from my head," Nguyen said. "Getting a Ph.D. is not what my body wants me to do. Sometimes things get so overwhelming here."

Nguyen also enrolled in a class called Adapted Physical Education under James R. Little with the Department of Kinesiology and Leisure Science. "She's so tuned into her body," Little said, "and she has a level of personal integrity so extremely high."

Nguyen is modest about her life, and she says she still gets very frustrated. But the more she accomplishes, the easier it is to ask for help.

"Freedom is what it's about."

My Lien Nguyen: "My mom
made incredible sacrifices.
I know where I get
my strength."

Vietnam refugee at 5;
new life at 29

By Susan Kreifels


My Lien Nguyen's last memory of Vietnam is captured on an old, gray photo: Fuzzy images of children playing atop an abandoned Army jeep.

"This is the last day they play together," her uncle wrote on the back. "Do they have any idea of what is to become of Vietnam?"

That was the same day the 5-year-old girl left a home abandoned by the Americans after more than a decade of bloodshed, then conquered by communists. In the summer of 1975, Nguyen, her mother and younger brother, and an uncle joined the many boat people fleeing Vietnam. They swam ashore in Thailand and ended up later that year in Rochester, N.Y., where Nguyen grew up.

Most memories of that summer are as fuzzy as the old, gray photo. But she clearly remembers her black hair, dyed to disguise the dirty-blond curls inherited from her American father.

As the world prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of the Vietnam War's end, Nguyen doesn't consider the politics that split her first home as well as her second. She only thinks about the emotions, the strange relationships of a conflict from which she and her brother were born.

Nguyen's mother worked in a U.S. military bar and fell in love with a helicopter pilot. They lived together in a world hard for Nguyen to understand.

Instead of leaving with the man she loved, her mother stayed in the country and culture she knew. But when the Americans pulled out, her mother fled to protect her two half-American children.

Nguyen, a 29-year-old graduate student at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, gave up hope of ever meeting her father, because when you turn adult, "you stop looking."

But three years ago, through a cousin's computer search, she found him, No. 8 on a list of 10 people with the same name. Two weeks later she met her father, who had another family. But they continued to see each other, skiing every other weekend although they lived an eight-hour drive apart. "We totally clicked. We became friends immediately."

This summer she plans to return to Vietnam to search out her roots and to meet the relatives who still struggle to survive there. She'll try to get a clearer picture of the torn world where her parents met, from where her mother fled.

"My mom made incredible sacrifices," said Nguyen, disabled from a bicycle accident five years ago. "I know where I get my strength."


Contributions to help send Nguyen to the "Face of America" relay this summer can be sent to Student Equity, Excellence and Diversity, c/o Pua Auyong-White, Student Services Center 413, 2600 Campus Road, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822. Checks should be made payable to World T.E.A.M. Sports. Donations are tax-deductible.


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