Sports as Privilege


Tennis coach Doanh Wang, a former refugee, tells players they're fortunate to be on the court

By Barbara Walsh

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Tennis coach Doanh Wang, whose family fled Vietnam in 1978, remembers his parents’ sacrifice and tells his players that to be a Colby student and athlete is a privilege to be repaid with hard work.
Photo by Jason McKibben

In the photograph Doanh Wang is 5 years old. He and his older sister, Khiet, stand on a roughly hewn wooden bench, their parents next to them. Boxes of food and tin cans are piled on a table. The roof is bamboo poles and palm fronds.

Thirty years later, as Colby’s head tennis coach, Wang would pull this snapshot from a photo album. Frustrated by his players’ lack of motivation at practice, their coach showed them the refugee camp where his family lived after fleeing South Vietnam.

“My parents sacrificed a lot for me to be here to coach you,” Wang recalled telling them. “And I’m sure your parents sacrificed a lot for you, too. So when you go out and play, I want you to think about how privileged you are to be on this campus, to be a part of this team.”

He got the players’ attention. “It left an embedded memory on all of his athletes as to where Coach gets his drive and determination,” recalled Nick Rosen-Wachs ’09.

Privilege, Wang told his players, can come in many forms—in a new country that offers opportunities for a good education, good jobs, and chances to excel on sports fields and tennis courts, for example. For one South Vietnamese boy, those privileges began Feb. 19, 1979, the day his family landed on American soil. “That day,” Wang said, “was a whole new world.”

Wang’s family had a comfortable life in a large apartment in Saigon—until 1975, when North Vietnam forces overran the city. Wang’s father, Phan Vuong, worked for an airline that flew Americans in and out of the country. After South Vietnam surrendered, Vuong worried about his family’s safety.

“We’ve got to leave,” Vuong recalled telling his wife, Quach. Then, in 1978, Vuong learned he was under investigation for his loyalties to the South Vietnamese army and the Americans. Two days later he bribed security officials so his family could flee.

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Wang and his family in their hut on the island of Pulau Tengah, where they lived after fleeing South Vietnam in 1978.

With a bag filled with sugar, water, and a couple of changes of clothing, Vuong’s family slipped away. Wang recalls his mother hushing her 5-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. “Just be quiet and follow Mom and Dad.”

They huddled in a small boat that sailed from South Vietnam’s coast. Later they were picked up by a Malaysian gunboat; rough seas tossed the vessel for three days as it journeyed south. Exhausted and seasick, the family arrived on Pulau Tengah, a small Malaysian island in the South China Sea. When they landed some 600 refugees lived there. Within a few months the population increased to several thousand. (Today it is uninhabited.)

Among the first wave of “boat people,” Vuong and his family built the bamboo hut and dug a well. Families cooked over open fires, and smoke aggravated Wang’s asthma. As the population swelled, conditions deteriorated. At one point the boy grew so sick his father carried him over the mountain to a clinic.

Vuong and Quach prayed it would soon be their turn to leave for Los Angeles, the city Vuong had requested. But months passed. Desperate, Quach begged her husband: “Tell them we will take anywhere in the United States.”

Finally, after eight months, Wang’s family heard their names over the public address system. “You are going to America!” other refugee children shouted to Wang.

But not to Los Angeles.

In February 1979 the family arrived in Binghamton, N.Y., where Vuong’s brother lived. Wang had never before seen his breath and remembers being awed by the sight. With help from the local Catholic church, the family received food, furniture, and rent money while the parents searched for jobs.

On his first day at St. Thomas Aquinas School, Wang did not understand a word but took comfort that Korean twins in his class looked like him. While his father worked at a wholesale tool company and his mother cleaned hotels and houses, Wang and his sister studied. “You must try hard,” Wang remembers his parents telling them. “We leave Vietnam so you can have better opportunity.”

Happier times: Doanh Wang, center, with his family in Saigon before the South Vietnam fell to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces in 1975.

To keep himself occupied, Wang played soccer and tennis. His athletic ability and competitive spirit impressed teammates and coaches. On the fields and courts, Wang finally felt accepted. “Here,” he realized, “I am equal.”

Later, as he attended Binghamton University, majoring in psychobiology, Wang played varsity tennis. Coach Mike Starke recognized something special in the lefthander.

“He had a deep competitive fire and respect for the game,” Starke said. “For a lot of American kids, they view sports and their education as a right. But Doanh has always believed that life, college, and playing sports are privileges.”

Wang’s senior year, his singles record of 17-4 helped lead Binghamton to the Division III nationals—a first in the university’s history. Doanh won two out of three matches.

Years later, after earning a master’s in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaching urban youth about HIV, tennis remained his passion. While assistant coach for women’s tennis at Wisconsin-Madison, Wang learned Colby had an opening. In 2007 he was hired as head coach for the men’s and women’s tennis teams.

Family members on the island of Pulau Tengah, in the South China Sea. The island was the site of a camp for refugees from Vietnam.

Wang sat in his office in the Alfond Athletic Center. Dressed in khakis, a black Colby Mules T-shirt, and sneakers, he spoke about his love for tennis. Testaments to his teaching skills hang on the walls: a half-dozen NESCAC certificates honoring his teams.

Though he appreciates the awards, Wang believes there is more to coaching than winning matches. He expects his players to excel off the court—in their studies and the community. Team members are required to meet with their coach to discuss athletic and academic goals; they also know that Wang’s office door is always open if they need to talk.

“Because he knows us so well off-court, it makes it easier for him to understand what is going on in our heads during a match,” said Katie Muro ’11. “His investment in us as people, as opposed to solely tennis players, is what makes him stand out as a coach and as a person.”

Tennis, Wang tells Muro and other players, is a lot like life: You may win or lose, but it’s perseverance that counts.

And, if the team has difficulty understanding that concept, there’s a photograph tucked away in Wang’s scrapbook.

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  • On August 10, 2010, Phan Vuong wrote:
    Proud of you Doanh!
  • On September 23, 2010, Hoang Vu wrote:
    I am so proud that Colby has hired a Vietnamese as head coach for the tennis programs. I have not followed closely how many Vietnamese students have found their way to the cold climate of Maine (we are not used to this weather), but recently got a phone call from one, who was a student at Colby. I think I may have been the first Vietnamese at Colby, graduating in 1980. I loved my experience at Colby, and can imagine going back there to work in some capacity some day.
  • On October 6, 2010, larry Quisenberyy wrote:
    Coach Wang apparently lives an insirational life and is an inspiration to those he teaches. Even though my daughter is a freshman tennis player at MIT, after reading his story, she will appreciate playing Colby this coming spring. She admires her coach, who is an inspiration to her. I know Lauren will be looking forward to meeting Coach Wang, a winner regardless of the final score. Colby and the tennis team are fortunate to have an outstanding individual like coach Wang. I am sure Colby's tennis team has been inspired by his story. The best to Colby, the team, and coach Wang.