Nan Sokhon,16, and Phoung Ponleu, 13 (also top left) train with others at Baksei Chan Krong Club.
Homeless children have found a family and a purpose for living in the demanding,
competitive world of gymnastics
Thirty-four years after she began teaching the subject, Krethsasna is still struggling
against the odds to produce gymnastic champions to represent Cambodia.
However, the sprightly 60-year-old says, these are by no means the darkest days for
Cambodian gymnasts. In fact, things are better now than they have been for years.
Krethsasna started training hopefuls in 1965, but the worst times came with those
of the rest of the country ten years later when the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh.
But when the Khmer Rouge were driven out of power in early 1979, Krethsasna headed
back to Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium where she had left her equipment four years
earlier. It was gone.
As the weeks passed, she recalls, she slowly began to rebuild the center. She maintained
the gymnasium and used the huge expanse of land inside the stadium grounds to grow
vegetables, water grass and papaya.
"In only a few months there were sufficient vegetables and papaya to feed myself,"
she says. "Then I decided to select some children and start training them."
At the time, she explains, there were numerous street children who were either orphaned
or who had been separated from their families. They had no means of supporting themselves,
so she focused on training and feeding them.
"Additionally gymnastics is perceived as a risky sport, so the rich families
wouldn't send their children for training," says Krethsasna. "That meant
I had to look for pupils among the street children."
She started with a dozen youngsters, all aged around six years and whom she thought
had suitable physiques.
"I fed them myself, and when there wasn't enough rice I would mix vegetables
with the rice to feed them," she says. Within a few months there were so many
street children clamoring to join that she could not feed them all. She was forced
to apply conditions.
Those who refused to listen to her instructions, or who lacked the natural skills
were not allowed to stay. That wasn't a decision she took lightly.
"I felt so sorry for them," says Krethsasna, "but I couldn't feed
Since those harsh early days, Krethsasna has trained more than 100 street children
in the art of gymnastics. In 1985 she formed the Cambodian Gymnastics Federation,
and currently has 60 children training under her. Ten are national champions.
One of those is 18-year-old Hem Socheata. Krethsasna plucked her from the streets
ten years ago, but Socheata has reached the limits of what the federation can provide.
"My trainer told me that unless I get more training abroad, I will never be
able to take part in international competitions," says Soch-eata. She hopes
to go to France next year, and says she should reach the requisite standard after
seven months hard work.
"My exercises here in Cambodia are not compatible with technical methods and
modern equipment," she says of the gymnasium's outdated equipment. "I mainly
exercise on the floor, so switching straight away to the equipment used in international
competitions won't be easy."
Another immediate problem is a lack of sufficient food, which affects the amount
of time the students can use for training. Socheata says with only one egg for lunch
and dinner, she lacks the energy to exercise for more than six hours a day.
"But we have no choice," she says," because we need to save our food
for the next day. And my life is far better now than it was ten years ago when I
was collecting bottles on the street."
Krethsasna is all too aware that her gymnasts don't get enough good food. She says
that some days their exercising lasts only four hours a day.
And that is despite assistance from the Ministry of Education, which gives money
to feed those students deemed good enough for the national championship program,
meaning Krethsasna has to find ways to raise money for the other students. She ends
up owing around 1 million riel a year just for rice, a situation she says is unavoidable.
"I am poor, but if I want to help the street children I can't avoid debt,"
Fellow student Sok Chey Chum-neash, 18, comes from a similar background to Socheata
and has been training since he was ten. Although both would like to compete internationally,
they realize that circumstances may conspire to ensure that never happens. In that
case both say they would be satisfied continuing Krethsasna's work and help to train
the next generation of street children.
All of which is music to their teacher's ears. She says part of her motivation
has been to help street children grow up in a secure environment that will help them
develop good morals and skills they can use to advance their lives.
But she is acutely aware that their present situation also reflects her past - although
Krethsasna was a skillful gymnast in her youth, a lack of funds meant she was unable
to compete internationally. And the lack of decent equipment means there will be
a steep learning curve for those lucky few who may one day go overseas.
"But if we can just help a few street children and give them some extra education
besides gymnastics," she concludes optimistically, "that will help reduce
the prevalence of crime in our society such as gangs and drug abuse."
And Krethsasna is still hopeful that one of her students - perhaps Socheata, who
will be sponsored by the French gymnastic federation for her seven month stint there
- will get to compete on the international stage and, just maybe, complete the learning
curve to bring back Cambodia's very first gymnastics medal.