Wrestling has altered her looks, but Chov Sotheara doesn’t care.
She doesn’t stop to consider her once-slim legs, now thick with muscle, or the case of cauliflower ear she has developed from constant battering.
Her clothing is strictly functional—she wears clothes for working out, for fighting.
And the only jewelry that matters to her are the two bronze medals she brought back from the Southeast Asian Games in 2003 and 2005.
Chov Sotheara, 21, is one of only a handful of Cambodian women who have dared to grapple, fight and elbow their way into a sport little known in this country: Modern freestyle wrestling.
Like fellow members of the Cambodian National Team, she has ignored doubters and defied expectations of what women in Cambodia should be.
“I think all wrestlers will look the same—I don’t mind that wrestling has spoiled my ears. I don’t care about losing my beauty: I already decided to be a wrestler,” she explained.
But that is no easy decision in Cambodia, wrestlers said.
They explained that wrestling means sacrifice in a country where national team members are paid only $30 per month to train—and nothing at all when there are no events planned.
Women like Chov Sotheara admit that a secure job or an attentive husband could easily entice them away from this scrappy world of hard training and high risk.
“If I can find a good job in the future, I will switch to a new job,” she said. “Sport can be played only when we are young and have enough energy. When we get older, we can’t play anymore. When I am 30 years old, I can’t play anymore.”
But until then, taking time off from training is not an option.
Early each morning, as amateur football players jostle for space in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, the members of the national wrestling team trickle into the dim building in a corner of the stadium compound where they spend four hours each day.
They train under Paek Su Nam, a North Korean coach who said he arrived in Cambodia two-and-a-half years ago to find a squad filled with novices, hardly wrestlers at all.
“The wrestlers didn’t know even the basic aspects of wrestling—they were beginners,” he said of the women he trains.
“When we came here, their body type was straight like a log. Now, they look like wrestlers. That type of figure shows that they trained so much.”
A wrestler should start training at the age of 11 or 12, he said—but most of the women on the team were poached away from a nearby Judo practice only a few years ago, by Vath Chamroeun, who founded of the Cambodian Wrestling Federation in 1999.
But Paek Su Nam said that, while the women were “young in the field of technique,” they had proven themselves by bringing home bronze medals from the 2003 and 2005 SEA Games.
“After training with us, they improved very much physically, technically and mentally also. Now they think, if they do their best, they can get more medals,” he said.
Try Sothavy, 24, knows that dilemma well.
After four years on the wrestling team, she feels that without better pay and adequate nutrition she and her teammates can succeed no further.
“Sports are very important for the country, however, it will not help the country at all if the ministry does not really care about this important sector. It needs support from the government and other sponsors,” she said.
She added that support was scarce even at home, where her family complained when she joined the wrestling team, saying they could not understand why a woman would wish to pursue a career in wrestling.
But Try Sothavy has proudly defied them.
She began training in judo, then moved over to wrestling years ago, where she has flourished.
“I don’t care what they say, because I am a sports-lover,” she said.
She has earned two SEA bronze medals, in 2003 and 2005. Now, she says, she hungers for gold.
But once she gets married, she expects that she must silence that passion.
“The woman wrestler will automatically stop her career after she is married. We cannot wrestle anymore. My husband must not allow me to continue it. This is what I understand about men’s feelings: somehow, our strength must drop down while living with a husband,” she said.
Chov Sotheara and Try Sothavy both struggle daily with the life as unsponsored athletes in a difficult and little-known sport.
But if it is trying for the top women wrestlers in the country, it is doubly hard for the other women on the national team who train just as hard but have less to show for it.
Nuth Sreyroth, 19, has been training as a wrestler for five years, but cannot seem to earn a medal.
The youngest in a family of four brothers, she said most of her family and friends do not understand what she is doing or why.
“My neighbors question my mother, why do you allow your young daughter to choose a sports career. Besides my father, none of my relatives encourage me to choose a wrestling career,” she said.
Her hopes were riding on the 2005 SEA Games, but she was so inexperienced at international competition that the crowds in the stadium shocked and overwhelmed her. When she returned to Cambodia with no medal, she vowed to quit the sport for good.
But now she is back, giving wrestling one last shot.
“I am trying so hard, but I have not yet gained any medal,” she said. “At the moment, I seem too tired in training. I cannot bring any medal back to the country. The result is not good, after five years of training, but my trainers always encourage me to continue.”
“I will try hard for the future, but I have little hope of bringing a gold medal to the country,” Nuth Sreyroth added.
But, coach Paek Su Nam said, the future hinges on the government. The wrestlers’ current situation makes achieving their goals extremely difficult, he said.
He compared his team to those in other countries, where wrestlers are paid a living wage and receive support from their communities, governments, commercial sponsors and fans.
“Now, the Cambodian wrestlers are thinking only half about wrestling, and half about living: about family, work, studying, how to eat,” he said.
Given proper support, he said, the women and men he is training now will be Cambodia’s referees, judges, trainers and wrestling stars.
With long-term government commitment to the sport, “Cambodian wrestling can improve very much and very quickly. If they provide good conditions, the [athletes’] minds will be proud of wrestling and they will train hard,” Paek Su Nam said.
But the government is doing all it can, representatives said.
The Ministry of Education Youth and Sport Secretary of State Bou Chum Serey said the government had no more funds to put toward wrestling, and does not consider wrestling programs in schools to be a viable option.
Wrestling Federation Vice President Hok Chheang Kim noted that 2005 SEA Games Bronze medalists received $1,500 each from National Olympic Committee for their achievements.
But Chov Sotheara said she hopes for more constant support.
She said that, with such aid, she hopes she can bring great honor to her country.
“Cambodia can be promoted through games and sports,” she said. “When the Cambodian team achieves a gold medal, our national flag will be shown to the world, and millions in the audience will know about Cambodia.”
(Additional reporting by Samantha Melamed)