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Sporting chance

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Sorn Davin during a training session. She will be the first Cambodian to compete in Tae Kwon Do at the Olympics. Photograph: Sreng Meng Srun/Phnom Penh Post

In the beginning, Sorn Davin took up sport because she had to. Her father passed away when she was only 10 and as one of five children, Davin wanted to help provide for the family. Her brother was a boxer and made money every time he competed; Davin thought she could do the same.

Davin started off with volleyball, but in 2006, on the advice of her brother, she tried Tae Kwon Do. At just shy of six feet tall, she was built for the Korean martial art, but Davin confesses that she wasn’t a natural.

“The first time I tried it I was very nervous and didn’t know what I was doing. I was fighting boys and was skinny and weak, not like I am now,” she recalls.

She got plenty of practice as a teenager; she says her size didn’t stop her brothers trying to beat her up, although it was only ever playful.

Only six years since she first stepped onto a Tae Kwon Do mat and her brothers were still able to get the better of her, the 21-year-old who lives at home with her mother in Phnom Penh, is preparing to head to the London Olympics, where she will represent her country in the heavyweight category.

Given that her initial involvement in martial arts was based not on passion, or even interest, but on financial necessity, how has she summoned the strength, commitment and determination to succeed in such a demanding career?

“At first, I didn’t know anything about the sport, but now I love it and don’t want to stop.”

She concedes that her gruelling training regime can be exhausting and that sometimes she is so tired that going to each session can seem very unappealing, but when she’s at home, she misses the club.

In preparation for the Games, her training schedule has increased in intensity. She is at the Olympic Stadium for three two-hour sessions every day with her coach.

It’s a full-time occupation, but not one that she gets paid for; although she earned money while fighting in Thailand in 2011, she has not received a wage since last November.

Davin smiles widely when she talks about her coach, Choi Young Sok, who hails from South Korea. “It’s really cool to have a Korean coach,” she says.

“Koreans are the best [at Tae Kwon Do] and he wants to export Tae Kwon Do to the world.”

The tutelage of Choi Young Sokken has afforded Davin opportunities to travel: in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011 he took her to his country so that she could train in an expert environment.

At 21, she will be among the youngest and least experienced competitors in the Tae Kwon Do competition in London. She is levelheaded about her prospects, but eager for the experience.

“I feel excited to go to London, it is the first time that I will go there and my first Olympic Games,” she says. Davin lost out on a qualifying place, but was awarded a wildcard entry, “When they gave me the news that my name was on the list, I was very happy. It will be the first time that Cambodia has competed in Tae Kwon Do at the Olympics.”

Tae Kwon Do is increasingly popular in Cambodia, particularly with young people and Khmer sports fans will no doubt be glued to coverage of Davin’s battles in London. However, there is one very important person who won’t be avidly watching.

Davin says that although her brothers and sister watch all of her contests, her mother can’t. She finds it too upsetting to see her daughter fight and the suspense of the competition exacerbates her heart condition.

Davin may be one of her country’s most successful athletes and a Cambodian “Olympic hero”, but she’s still a baby girl in her mother’s eyes.

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