Sixteen years after an unnamed baby from Prey Veng province was abandoned at a Phnom Penh orphanage, the boy returned to the country this week under remarkably different circumstances—as a U.S. national diving champion with Olympic dreams.
Coming back to his homeland for the first time this week, 17-year-old Jordan Pisey Windle had local schoolchildren chanting his name on Thursday as he twisted and somersaulted from the top board of the Olympic Stadium’s swimming pool.
Little was known about the child, named “Pisey” by the nannies at the now-defunct Women and Children’s Vocational Center, other than that his parents had died and he was wearing a key as a necklace when he was left at the orphanage.
Around the turn of the century, after reading at length about the atrocities inflicted on Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge, Jerry Windle, a gay former U.S. Navy officer, decided that he wanted to adopt an orphan to offer the child a better life.
After being sent a photo of Pisey, Mr. Windle boarded a plane for Cambodia and adopted him.
“What we understand is that he was born in Prey Veng, and what I was told was that he was abandoned at the orphanage when he was about a year old and he was in the orphanage for approximately a year,” Mr. Windle said at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday.
Mr. Windle and his son, whom he named Jordan, moved to Florida before relocating to California. Although he was always aware of his Cambodian roots—his father decked out his bedroom in Cambodian artwork—Jordan said it was only when his peers started pointing out that his skin color was different to that of his father that he began feeling confused about his background.
“It never came to mind that I was a different color than my dad, just because the connection was family…until kids started asking me and actually putting it in my head, ‘Why are you a different color?’ Why am I Cambodian and he’s white and why was I adopted—stuff like that,’” the diver said.
“Then I started to think about it and it got me a little depressed because I, at some point, wanted to be white like my dad. I wanted to have blue eyes. I wanted to be just like him.”
Despite these early difficulties grappling with his identity, the seeds of his future success were sown at a summer camp in second grade.
When the children were allowed to jump from a 1-meter diving board at the end of a play session, Tim O’Brien, the son of the coach of four-time Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis, spotted the youngster and was struck by his raw technique, Mr. Windle said.
The following summer, the Olympian visited the young diver and took him under his wing. It didn’t take long for the medals to start pouring in, including a Junior National Championship on the 1-meter springboard. In 2011, he finished fourth in the World Championship Synchronized Diving trials and became one of the youngest divers ever to qualify for the U.S. Olympic diving team trials as a result.
Since then, he has bagged the Junior National Championship title on the 10-meter platform and a gold at the Pan-American Championships. He now hopes to compete in this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Around the time his son’s career began taking off, Mr. Windle met his current partner, Andres, whom the teenager refers to as “papi.” Despite encountering no trouble at school for having “two dads,” he admitted to running into some problems with fellow divers.
“Because I have two dads, some people thought I was gay as well, which I have no problem in people thinking that, that’s totally fine with me,” Jordan said.
“I’m not going to say any names, but one of my synchro partner’s parents wouldn’t want me to do synchro with him because he thought if I dived with him people would think he was gay because I have two dads,” he said. “That made me mad.”
After achieving success, the young diver—who is now living with his parents in North Carolina to train with top coaches—felt it was time to reconnect with his roots in Cambodia.
Landing at the airport in Phnom Penh from which he flew out as a toddler in 2000, Jordan was met by a media scrum.
“The first day when we landed, there was a lot of media, right at the entrance. That was a little intimidating, just knowing that I had to speak in front of them and the language—a little bit of a barrier there,” he said, adding that he has since relished experiencing the smells and tastes of his homeland for the first time he can remember.
During the homecoming trip, which has involved trips to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeung Ek killing fields as well as Thursday’s diving exhibition, his father said they hoped they would be able to find the nannies who had originally cared for the young sportsman.
“I’m hoping that someone will recognize someone and connect with us. I think it would be really amazing if he could reconnect, because I believe it was the nannies that named him Pisey,” Mr. Windle said. “It was very important for me to know the truth of his life and who he is. We have a wonderful family together, but it’s important for me, as he gets older, to truly know who he is and the more information we can gather, the better for all of us.”