Four Cambodians And Their Quest For a Medal in Sydney
Brother, Sister Swimmers Trained at Hotel Pool
Athletes from around the globe have been training for the Olympic Games, their one moment in the world spotlight.
But Hem Raksmey and her brother Kiry are probably the only two athletes who trained in a hotel swimming pool, surrounded by deck tables with 555 Cigarette umbrellas, next door to a pink-painted disco.
Raksmey and Kiry spent their final month getting ready for the Games, which begin this weekend in Sydney, practicing in the outdoor pool at the Cambodia Plaza Hotel in Tuol Kok. Chased out of the Olympic Stadium pool when that complex was closed for renovation, the Hems spent their afternoons racing across the Plaza pool, surprising poolside guests who didn’t expect to see Olympic athletes training right at their feet.
“It has been exciting, swimming here so the public can know and recognize our training,” Raksmey said at one of her final Plaza practices before she and her brother left Monday morning for Sydney along with Cambodia’s two other Olympians, male marathoner To Rithya and female sprinter Ouk Chanthan.
Raksmey, who turned 18 on Sept 6, says she’s not the same shy girl who represented her country as a 14-year-old at the 1996 Summer Olympics in the US city of Atlanta and finished last in her heat in the 100-meter breaststroke.
“The difference right now is that with four years more practice, I’m better than before,” she said. “Before Atlanta, I just couldn’t believe that I could go to the Olympics as a Cambodian representative.”
Invited to the Olympics as a wild-card selection because her times aren’t fast enough to meet world qualifying standards, Raksmey has been entered in the 50-meter freestyle by world swimming officials. Her personal best in the event is 32.63 seconds.
Raksmey swims as much as 4,000 meters a day six days a week to prepare for that 50-meter race. She practiced mornings and evenings at Olympic Stadium and made use of the workout rooms to lift weights and work on her flexibility.
When the stadium closed, she switched to one three-hour afternoon swimming workout at the Plaza.
Olympic Stadium was literally home to the Hem family for many years. They lived on the premises where father Hem Thon coached and supervised the pool.
Raksmey said she began serious swimming at age seven. “I wanted my children to swim so we would have the security of a family that was together,” Hem Thon said. “I also wanted my children to be able to swim across the river in case there was ever trouble in Phnom Penh again.”
As it turns out, Raksmey and Kiry swim across the Mekong faster than anyone. They won their respective divisions in the cross-Mekong swim held earlier this summer in front of the Royal Palace.
“I consider it an international competition, because it has swimmers from neighboring countries,” Raksmey said. “Plus it’s long-distance swimming, which is a different challenge for me.”
After graduating from Bak Touk High School in 1998, Raksmey attended the Education and Sport School for one year. She hasn’t decided to finish her second year and become a coach, mostly because sports coaches in Cambodia do not earn much money.
“It hurts me that Cambodia has such a small [Olympics] team, because we are so poor,” she said. “But it’s good that after Pol Pot, we can still raise an Olympic flag.”