Every afternoon at 5 pm, before 18-year-old Hem Thon Ponloeu dives into the clear blue depths of the Olympic Stadium swimming pool, he thinks only of going full speed ahead.
“Before I jump, I think that I must be faster,” he said Thursday evening, standing poolside in tight-fitting blue swim trunks.
“Once I reach the water, I just think of going forward fast. I don’t think of anything else.”
Nowadays, as one of four Cambodian athletes preparing for the Beijing Olympic Games, Hem Thon Ponloeu’s personal pep talk has taken on new meaning—and his training schedule, new scope.
Upping his normal routine of 3,000 to 3,500 meters a day to between 3,800 and 4,000 meters a day, Hem Thon Ponloeu readies himself for the first time to compete in an Olympiad.
Hem Thon Ponloeu and his 16-year-old niece, Hem Thon Vitiny, will compete in the 50-meter freestyle swimming race in Beijing in August, and runners Hem Bunting (no relation), 23, and Sou Titlinda, a 19-year-old woman, will compete in the marathon, said Nhan Sok Visal, an administrator at the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia.
Hem Bunting won a silver and a bronze medal in track and field at the SEA Games in Thailand in December.
A delegation of 15, including Tourism Minister and NOCC President Thong Khon, is expected to depart for Beijing on Aug 7, Nhan Sok Visal said, adding that King Norodom Sihamoni and Education Minister Kol Pheng also plan to attend the games.
It is not the first time Cambodia has sent athletes to the Olympics. The first post-war delegation of five Cambodians competed at the Atlanta, US, games in 1996, and Cambodia has subsequently sent four athletes to both Sydney in 2000 and Greece in 2004. Nor is it the first time a Hem has joined the competition. Hem Thon Ponloeu’s older brother Hem Kiry competed in Greece and Sydney.
Indeed, swimming runs in the Hem genes.
In addition to his older brother, Hem Thon Ponloeu’s father, Hem Thon, achieved prominence as a professional swimmer in the 1960s.
Hem Thon, 65, is now a swim coach and also volunteers as the secretary-general of the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation.
Hem Thon Ponloeu himself practically learned to swim before he learned to walk, and has been training since he was 6 years old.
After attending school everyday in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district, he goes to train from 5 pm to 7 pm at Olympic Stadium.
He receives a salary of $30 to be a member of the national swim team, and said he isn’t sure what kind of support he will receive during the Olympics, but that he has been told it will be sufficient. When his brother competed four years ago in Greece, he received $20 a day plus free food and accommodation, he said.
Hem Thon Ponloeu said he is thrilled at the prospect of competing in the Olympics, but hasn’t set his hopes too high. He said he won’t be trying for a medal, just his personal best.
“When I went to the SEA Games in Thailand, I swam the 50-meter freestyle in 28 seconds,” he said. “In China, I hope to have it down to 27.26 seconds. I have been training continuously.”
Hem Thon Vitiny said Thursday that she is a bundle of mixed emotions prior to the Olympic Games, and that she too just hopes to beat her previous record.
“I feel happy and nervous. It is a big event,” she said Thursday evening, before beginning her daily swim drills.
She said she hopes to sustain or beat her time of 32.14 seconds, which she achieved in the 50-meter freestyle at the Thailand SEA Games.
“I think that from one year to another, I am going to get better,” she said.
Hem Thon said Thursday that it has been an ongoing struggle to revive the sport of swimming in Cambodia since the mid-1980s.
He expressed pride at the swimming prowess that runs in his family, but said their achievements are also due to hard work.
“My children were number one nationwide all the time,” he said, adding that some people have accused him in the past of nepotism, but that it couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Nowadays, I went to the parents and ask them if they volunteer to receive training. No one comes to ask us for the training,” he said.
Hem Thon attributes the lack of interest to the dim economic reality of many would-be swimmers.
“[Cambodia] is different from other countries where people pay to get trained. In our country, we have to give them the money to come and join us,” he said.
Still others, he said, aren’t interested in the daily commitment to rigorous physical exercise. “The wealthy people don’t like to send their children to be trained. It is hard work.”