Cambodia is home to two women’s wheelchair basketball teams, both boasting big ambitions. Writer Thomas Brent looks at their goal of displaying their talent on the world stage and developing the sport across the nation.

The shrieking of the bats overhead blends with the screeching of tyres on the hard maple floor, creating a cacophony of noise inside Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. One player lines up a shot and tosses the ball effortlessly through the hoop, prompting cries and applause from the audience. She wheels away to celebrate with her team mates.

Leading the celebration is Seang Sokchan, coach and captain of Battambang women’s wheelchair basketball team.

Her friend and adversary, Ann Sineth, coach and captain of Kampong Speu’s team, watches on competitively.

The Kingdom’s two wheelchair basketball teams’ 40 members recently united for the first time for a three-day training course, attended by coaches from Canada, including legendary player and coach Mike Frogley.

The culmination of the event was an exhibition match between the two teams, which was fiercely and evenly contested, gaining praise from Frogley, who said if Cambodia had a national team they could easily sit in the world’s top 12. And that is exactly the step the women want to take.

“We will take the top 12 players from both teams to make an elite team,” says Philip Morgan. “The plan is to get them to come to Phnom Penh on a regular basis so they can play as a team and develop team spirit, all in preparation for the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.”

Morgan is the physical rehabilitation programme manager at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organisation that founded the two teams in 2012.

Despite there currently only being two teams in the country, the sport has been moving forward relentlessly since it started. Along with the goal of starting a national team to compete in the Paralympics, they are also preparing to launch more teams in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham and Prey Veng. Experienced players from the established teams will coach new players, with the eventual goal of starting a national league.

It is hoped that by widening access to the sport, it can help more people who are generally cut off from social interactions. For many of the players, wheelchair basketball has been life-changing.

“During my life, I have been discriminated against a lot, even by my family, friends, neighbours and community,” says Sokchan. “They thought I had no ability or capability. When I was 12, I wanted to go to school but it was not easy for me.”

Sokchan was shot in the back at the age of 12, rendering her paralysed below the waist. She is one of many disabled people in Cambodia who have struggled all their lives in a country that has limited facilities to help people with disabilities.

For her, basketball has been a way to show people what she can do, and it came at a point in Sokchan’s life when she was battling depression.

“There are many advantages to playing basketball,” she says. “I feel happy, I make more friends, I am healthy and I can share my experience with others. I want to show people what I can do.”

It is fair to say that it has been working. Last year, the team was invited to play an exhibition match at the National Basketball Association tournament. They played a three on three, ten-minute match at half time. The game was live-streamed on Facebook, and when the women took to the field the number of viewers skyrocketed from 800,000 to 1.5million.

“After the match, there was almost a pitch invasion where all the players came on and hugged the girls, shaking hands, getting involved in the whole thing,” says Morgan. “It was really inspirational.”

The three-day training camp was wrapped up with the Battambang team stealing victory. The other players, who watched on from the side-lines sat with their hands joined, revelling in the bond the sport has given them. Sokchan led the team from the field, preparing to head back home to Battambang.

“I want to show everyone, even those who are not disabled, that we still have the capacity to play sport and be involved in social activities just like everyone else,” she says. “They should not underestimate us; we are physically disabled, but not in our heart and soul.”

Crowdfunding campaign

French and Indian NGOs XLability and The Soulcial Trust have set the wheels in motion for a three-nation wheelchair sports programme between Europe and Asia.

The main goal is to raise awareness of the many challenges people with disabilities face in developing countries, such as India and Cambodia.

The programme involves coaching by participating teams in wheelchair sports, including rugby, basketball and tennis. The project brings together wheelchair rugby teams from France and India, as well as Battambang’s women’s wheelchair basketball team.

The teams will train each other in their respective sporting discipline, with the first exchange taking place in Battambang in November. A crowdfunding campaign to support the project is being run, and corporate partners are being sought.

Contact Roxanne Hervé on 061 221 105 or oxanne@soulcialtrust.org