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The coolest new sport: Cambodia’s ice skaters have Olympic dreams

Bunthoeurn Sen hopes to compete as a figure skater when the event makes its debut at the Southeast Asian Games.
Bunthoeurn Sen hopes to compete as a figure skater when the event makes its debut at the Southeast Asian Games. Athena Zelandonii

The coolest new sport: Cambodia’s ice skaters have Olympic dreams

The first time Derang Meng, 23, ever saw snow was on the Discovery Channel. He was six years old, the only child of a single mother living with his aunt and uncle in Songkea village in Battambang province. The images entranced him. Something about the ice – so utterly alien to Southeast Asia – stuck with Meng.

“As a kid, I wanted to play in the snow, to build a snowman,” he said with a smile. “I hope one day I can see it for real.”

Meng was sitting at a bench strapping on a pair of Jackson Ultima brand ice skates. The air was nippy in the Ice Park, Cambodia’s only ice rink, where Meng was about to attend practice with the Cambodian national figure-skating team.

The 14-person coed team, which is less than a year old, practices there five times a week, along with all of Cambodia’s five skating clubs. All but two of the national athletes double as instructors at the rink, which is on the fourth floor of Aeon Mall.  

The rink was dotted with young skaters. Children and teenagers glided around the small oval of ice wearing skinny jeans, t-shirts and cheap blue rental skates as pop music blared. Surrounding the rink, a teenage crowd of flip-flopped onlookers snapped selfies and stared out at the skaters, happy to be there “just for the cold,” said one 17-year-old named Piseth Chhuor.

In the centre of the rink, the skating team practiced in high spirits. They were riding a wave of momentum following last week’s National Figure Skating Championship, Cambodia’s second ever.

The event was organised by the one-year-old Cambodia Ice Skating Federation (CISF), a government-sanctioned body, funded largely through a sponsorship with Smart Mobile, which aims to spread the skating gospel throughout the Kingdom – a tough sell in a poor country with only one ice rink.

But they have a plan and the first part of it is the national team. To help make the team globally competitive, the Ice Park recently hired a Minnesotan coach from Los Angeles, Ben Blandford. He is assisted by a Filipino coach named Richy Nonapo, who has worked at the rink for three years.

While the national team harbours Olympic dreams, for now, their sights are set firmly on the 2017 Southeast Asia Games in Kuala Lumpur, where figure skating will be featured for the first time in the games’ 29-year history.

Mayor Neng, whose father owns Aeon Mall Ice Park, is the youngest member of the national team.
Mayor Neng, whose father owns Aeon Mall Ice Park, is the youngest member of the national team. Athena Zelandonii

Outside of Cambodia, figure skating has surged in popularity throughout the region over the last few years. Rinks are commonly located in shopping malls. Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore all have internationally recognised federations (though none, besides the Philippines, has sent an athlete to the Olympics). The CISF intends to get Cambodia on that bandwagon.

“I think it’s about time Cambodia put together a skating team,” said coach Nonapo on Wednesday. “Most of Asia has figure-skating teams; Cambodia shouldn’t be left behind.”

It was a sentiment echoed by CISF secretary-general Long Sotheavy, who is currently sorting out the paperwork for Cambodia to gain membership in the International Skating Union, which is required to enter the SEA Games. “In Asia – Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, China – they already have ice skating. Why can’t Cambodia have it?” she said.

The team still needs to qualify, which is where coach Blandford comes in. He is a spirited man who carries with him over a decade of coaching experience. At a practice this week, he was instructing the skaters in one-foot spins.

“After I do my turn, I open up a bit,” demonstrated Blandford. Meng gave it go, skating forward with speed then throwing out a leg while pulling his arms inward to induce centripetal force. As he spun, a lick of hair flung outwards from his forehead like the antenna of a deep-sea fish.

Nearby, Farod Khut, 23, was spinning, too. Wearing a bright blue shirt, he was the only one there not in the team’s uniform, a black fleece. His was in the wash. Like many team members, Khut grew up in the countryside.

His parents sold rice cakes. Until he got a job at Kids City, he had never heard of ice skating. Now it occupies most of his time. “I can do salchow, toe loop and flip,” he said proudly, listing his repertoire. Khut demonstrated with a spin and hop.

“I want to go to the Olympics with my team,” he said.The founder of the Federation and Ice Park owner is businessman Meng Hieng, who also owned the rink at Kids City, which has since been turned into a bumper car arena. His 11-year-old son Mayor, the youngest on the team by over a decade, is one of its best skaters.

“I think skating is fun. I like spinning!” Mayor said, during a quick break from practicing his moves. Short, with a big hopeful grin full of braces, he said: “When I grow up, I want to be an ice-skating champion.”

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