Sorn Seavmey, the 19-year-old high school student who captured the country’s imagination after winning Cambodia’s first-ever gold medal at the Asian Games this month, grew up in a cramped house in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district.
“We were poor and I was never interested in sports when I was little, I was always more interested in fashion,” said Ms. Seavmey during an interview at the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia (NOCC) headquarters this week.
Ms. Seavmey made Cambodian sporting history on October 3 when she defeated Iran’s Fatemeh Rouhani to take the women’s taekwondo under-73 kg gold in Incheon, South Korea, after knocking out fighters from Uzbekistan and the Philippines.
Two days later, Ms. Seavmey stepped off her return flight to Phnom Penh to a hero’s reception and was driven in a government convoy to the Peace Palace, where she was greeted by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The youngest of six siblings, Ms. Seavmey early life was a struggle, especially after the family’s house was razed in a fire in 2002 and her father died in a traffic accident in 2003, said Ms. Seavmey’s mother, Suon Chanthy.
“I had to look after the children alone,” said Ms. Chanthy, who worked stitching clothes in a garment factory. “We often had to live off instant noodles because I had debts owed to the tong tin,” she added, referring to a community savings circle to which participants make monthly deposits.
Ms. Chanthy, who at 177 cm towers above most people, said her daughters’ height—Ms. Seavmey is 180 cm tall and her older sister and teammate Sorn David is 178 cm tall—was another cause of distress when they were young.
“I felt pity on [my daughters] because they are so tall and they would get upset because they wanted to wear high-heeled shoes, they found that very difficult,” she said. Ultimately, though, their height proved crucial to their sporting success.
The family’s fortunes began to change when Ms. Seavmey’s older brother and Ms. Davin—who won silver at the 2011 SEA Games —started to excel in boxing and taekwondo, respectively, and began picking up trophies.
Despite initially showing little interest in taekwondo, Ms. Seavmey would ride her bicycle with her mother to Olympic Stadium to watch her sister train. In 2010, she was spotted by Ms. Davin’s South Korean coach, Chhoi Yong-sok.
“I recognized her immediately, she was very tall and there are not many Cambodian athletes with that height,” said Mr. Yong-sok.
“I asked her if she was interested in training alongside Davin and she agreed. She was big, but not strong to begin with,” he said. “But she was intelligent and learned fast. We worked hard in the gym to build up her muscle.”
It didn’t take long before Ms. Seavmey began catching up with her sister, winning bronze medals at the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia and at the 2011 Southeast Asian Taekwondo Championships in Cambodia. She took home the gold at the SEA Games in Burma last year.
Despite her rapid ascent, few expected the 19-year-old to become the continent’s best female taekwondo fighter under 73 kg. The success surprised even Ms. Seavmey, who said she “felt her ability was still weak.”
But any pre-tournament nerves evaporated as she demolished Uzbekistan’s Umida Abdullavera 29-7 in her opening match, which was followed by a tight 6-5 victory over Kirstie Elaine Alora of the Philippines.
In the final, Ms. Seavmey was playing catch up from the beginning, going down 0-3 down against Iran’s Ms. Rouhani in the early stages before fighting back to win 7-3.
Even as she was on the cusp of one of the greatest moments in Cambodian sports history, Ms. Seavmey said she never let her concentration waver.
“I wasn’t thinking about everything else,” she said. “I was just focused on winning the fight.”
Just over 48 hours later, she was met by a frenzied crowd at the Phnom Penh International Airport and later showered with gifts and praise at the Peace Palace, with Mr. Hun Sen saying the “Cambodian nation has great pride that never existed in the past.”
Mr. Hun Sen also announced she would receive an automatic pass for the grade 12 exam she had recently failed, a reward that Ms. Seavmey said she had mixed feelings about.
“I am happy about it, but I did feel a bit ashamed for myself because I haven’t taken my re-sit, but I got a certificate like the students [who passed],” she said, adding that the fact Thailand has the same policy for medalists in international sporting events lessened her guilt.
Ms. Seavmey said the poor quality of facilities in the country in comparison to most of the other 45 countries competing at the games made victory even sweeter.
“Compared with other countries, Cambodia is still poor and there are not enough facilities. But I just did my best to get the achievement for the country,” she said.
“Through my achievements, I think sports in Cambodia will progress and the government will pay more attention to sports.”