Writer Socheata Seng speaks to some of the young Cambodian athletes who are driving the country’s sports scene while hoping to inspire a generation of youngsters to follow their dreams.

Yoeun Sovannareach – Frisbee
“I neither played sport nor was I interested in it,” says Yoeun Sovannareach, captain of Frisbee team Swa. “But, when I started playing Frisbee, it changed my world.”

The 22-year-old, who was first introduced to Frisbee in 2011 by a group of American students, went to join a camp with the promise of a new sports uniform and food.  However, he soon realised the camp was well organised and, most-of-all, fun.

Frisbee, a mixed-gender game, is a fast-paced sport that is played with teams of seven. To score points, players must pass the disc-shaped Frisbee to another teammate to catch in the end zones.

Reach was hooked after joining Frisbee camp. He found throwing the disc more fun than wandering around doing nothing. Two years later, he formed his team, Swa.

In 2015, Reach and his teammates organised a two-week-ultimate camp with 150 mixed-gender kids, with the aim of boosting participation and recognition of grassroots sports in Cambodia.

Later that year, he started to raise funds for his team to attend a tournament in Vietnam. The funds were enough to send 16 players there.

When AsiaLIFE spoke to Reach, him and his teammates were training hard for an upcoming tournament in Ho Chi Minh City at the end of June. This time, 24 talented players were heading to the cup.

In the future, Reach hopes to see more youngsters paticipate in sports and he wants to be a coach or a team manager.

Oum Tharoth – Bokator
Inspired by her friend’s performance, rising star Oum Tharoth decided to start training in Bokator, led by grand master San Kim Seam, a decade ago.

She rose through the ranks quickly, becoming a professional Bokator performer and fighter in 2008. Despite there being many obstacles along the way, including resistance from her family, she has proved determination prevails, working her way on to the national team, representing Cambodia in the martial art.

Tharoth, who was born in a refugee camp, had never learned martial arts before so it was difficult at first, but she nailed it regardless. The 27- year-old has been fighting professionally in rings and matches across Cambodia as well as at international MMA competitions.She is always appreciated in every performance and competition she takes part in, and says she is proud because she can represent Cambodia with her unique talent.

Her team performed in South Korea in 2010 and 2011, and visited Vietnam and South Korea again in 2012. She demonstrated her martial arts skills in Tokyo in 2013, and won her first silver medal South Korea in 2015.

Tharoth has also nurtured her acting skills. To date, she has featured in seven films, both local and international. Her most famous to date is Jailbreak.

Tharoth wants to see more women represented in martial arts and sports. She encourages them to critically question social norms and to believe in their own ability.  “Be a good example to yourself and to society,” she says.

Chheun Nipha – Football
“I hope that Cambodian girls follow their dreams and ambitions no matter what society has to say about it because they are all worth fighting for,” says former U16 national football player, Chheun Nipha.

At the age of 13, Nipha never imagined the moment she kicked a ball for the first time would end up changing her life.

She was first introduced to soccer by a non-profit organisation based in Battambang in 2007. The programme aimed to empower girls and break down gender discrimination in Cambodia by providing women with a safe space, football training, and advanced education.

Through the programme, Nipha was selected as a member of the female U14 national football squad and participated in tournaments and competitions across Southeast Asia. At the age of 23, Nipha has come a long way from a worried little girl who was destined to be trafficked to a foreign country to provide for her family.

Now she is coach of the male U14 football team at Phnom Penh Crown Football Club, one of the country’s top performing clubs.

She also runs football activities in numerous schools and far-off communities around Phnom Penh to encourage girls to play football and find within themselves the strength to be who they really are.

Nipha is the only female coach with a B Level Coaching certificate in The Asian Football Confederation. Her dream is to become a football instructor for FIFA.

Riem Sokphirom – Sepak Takraw

Riem Sokphirom, 28, is a national sepak takraw – or kick volleyball – player and leader of the Small World Small band.

Hailing from a middle-class family, Sokphirom is the youngest of six brothers and the only one who has talent in sports and arts.

Sokphirom has excelled in sepak takraw since turning his attention from football in 2007 at the suggestion of his brothers.

Since then, he has played in many international competitions in countries including Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore. In the 28th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Singapore, Phirom’s squad won the Kingdom’s first gold medal. Though his team has won many international games, there aren’t many supporters compared with football.

“There is no proper place for us to train,” he says. “We often train outside the basketball court in an open place somewhere around the parking lot.”

Due to the lack of resources, he says in June his team travelled to Myanmar for about eight weeks to prepare for the upcoming SEA games, which will take place in Malaysia in August.

Besides playing sepak takraw, Sokphirom has also composed an original sport songs, which incorporates the spirit and real experience of players into the lyrics of the song, and delivers the hopes and emotions of players as they fight to become champions for their nation.

He hopes that if he delivers the right message through songs, supporters will support every sport, not just football.