RICHMOND, Va. — It is nearly every athlete’s dream to represent their home country in the Olympics or any other international competition.
For some, their heritage offers opportunities to compete as well but for the land of their ancestors.
One Richmond cyclist has returned from just such a trip, one he will remember forever.
For a guy who took up cycling in college to avoid parking issues at VCU, Johnny Phan’s pedals have taken him farther than he has ever imagined.
In an earlier story, we told you how based on his cycling times in amateur events here on the East Coast, he was invited to join the Cambodian cycling team for the Southeast Asia games in Vietnam.
While you may not have heard of this competition, it’s as big as any other you’d find in the United States.
“I’ve grown up all my life in the United States and I’ve never heard of the Southeast Asia Games. There, it’s a really big deal. These are Olympic hopefuls,” Phan said.
11 nations were represented, but only eight fielded teams were in the cycling events. Even so, several of the other countries’ teams were bigger and better funded than the group Phan was with from Cambodia.
“I was racing riders who do this for a living. This is their job, this is what they do. They travel around the world, they race professionally and they make money doing it,” Phan said.
In the two events in with Phan raced, he finished in the middle of the pack both times.
No athlete goes into a competition looking to just do alright, but for an amateur, it was a great showing.
“These are seasoned bike racers who do this for a living. And I’m a dad, living in Richmond, Virginia who does this part-time. To know that I belong and that I was not out of my element was really affirming,” Phan said.
Phan’s parents did not make the trip to watch their son race.
But after having to leave their homeland during the country’s civil war in the 1970s, it meant the world to see their son return voluntarily and represent not only their country but their family in such a positive way.
“I know that for my family, they’re extremely proud. Even if I didn’t medal or anything like that, I think my mom was brought to tears that I was even able to wear that jersey and honor my family like that,” Phan said. “I think it’s hard for them to think about that time in their life because of how painful it was. I just want for them to just have a little bit of joy when they think about it. If a bike race can bring that to them, cool,” Phan said.
Phan’s trip over to the games included a 14-hour flight from Washington to Inchon, Korea.
His return home was even longer. A 30-hour journey that included a 10-hour layover in Doha, Qatar.
Still, it was the trip of a lifetime and if the Cambodian team came calling again, Phan would jump at the chance to race with them.
For now, though, he will be taking a much-deserved rest.