The passing this week of Hem Thon, one of Cambodia’s highly regarded and most successful competitive swimmers from the golden decade between the post-independece and pre-Khmer Rouge era, has left a void that will be hard to fill, but his legacy will remain in the collective consciousness of the Kingdom for ever.
Tributes have been pouring in for Hem Thon, who breathed his last on Monday after a brief illness. He was 73. Prime Minister Hun Sen and several of his cabinet colleagues joined the sports fraternity in condoling Hem Thon’s passing, as the man who founded the Swimming Federation with friends in 1983 and served as its secretary-general for the next 32 years was given a tearful farewell yesterday.
At the time of his death, Hem Thon was serving his first term as the deputy secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia and had been working for the past few years on a compilation of Cambodia’s sporting history.
“He was pursuing this highly informative documentation work with great fervour. The best possible tribute we can pay Hem Thon is to complete this work that he coveted the most,” NOCC secretary-general Vath Chamroeun told the Post yesterday.
“Hem Thon was very passionate in his involvement in building Olympic standard swimming pools in Kampong Cham and Kampot. The Kampong Cham facility will be opened in April this year.”
The president of the NOCC and Minister of Tourism Dr Thong Khon was among the first to pay his respects to Hem Thon, describing him as an outstanding achiever in the pool and an able administrator by the poolside.
“The sacrifices Hem Thon made, the traumatic experiences he had in his life, the courage with which he faced them and the glory he brought for the country makes him a Cambodian sporting legend,” the NOCC chief noted in his eulogy.
Meanwhile, the president of the Swimming Federation and senior minister and minister of commerce, Sun Chanthol, has announced that a swimming competition in Hem Thon’s name will be added as an annual feature to the national calendar.
In addition to this, the minister said, a club will also be formed to honour Hem Thon and will be run by one of his sons, Hem Kiri.
Hem Thon unfortunately did not get to see Cambodia host the Southeast Asia Games – one of his greatest ambitions. The Kingdom is preparing to stage the Games in 2023. In the past few months, Hem Thon was upbeat that Cambodian swimmers could win medals in the SEA Games in Singapore this June.
In a conversation with the Post a few months ago, Hem Thon had indicated that he had clearly seen signs of great improvement in national swimmers. “I think we have a very good chance in Singapore.
The swimmers have been training well and hard” were his emphatic words.
Hem Thon had spoken with pride in that conversation about the Kampong Cham swimming facility, stressing how vital it was for competitive swimmers to train in the best facilities.
His son Hemthon Punlou and granddaughter Hemthon Vittiny, who have followed the patriarchal path by representing Cambodia in all the major international events, including the Olympics and Asian Games, are determined to make Hem Thon’s wish come true in Singapore.
Hem Thon spent his formative years in the Koh Dach commune in Kandal province. In his younger days football was his first love. He was part of the royal team, Cercle Royale Khmere, playing alongside the top national goalkeeper at the time, Lim Sak.
Fate pushed Hem Thon into the pool. His mother dissuaded him from joining his other friends on a trip to China for a football camp. Feeling lonely and egged on by a few senior swimmers, Hem Thon took to the water and the rest was soon history. His splash in the pool was spectacular – he finished second on his debut in the national championships in 1960. But in the following years he dominated the pool.
Hem Thon’s foray into international fame came at the 1963 GANEFO Games in Indonesia, where he took three bronze medals. He landed two silver and three bronze medals at the third SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur two years later. But Hem Thon’s biggest moment of glory came at an international event in Singapore where he won his first gold medal, beating renowned swimmers from four other countries in the 100 metres freestyle.
In a career spanning nearly 11 years, Hem Thon won 12 medals in all, making him one of the most successful Cambodian sportsmen of all time.
Hem Thon’s competitive days came to an end in 1971 as political instability and the impending threat of Khmer Rouge repression began to loom large.
As KR atrocities swept the country, Hem Thon moved to Pursat province, where he lost five children.
Halcyon days behind him, Hem Thon turned his focus to developing the sport he cherished in the country while serving as a government official in charge of sports education until his retirement in 2000.
After assuming office as deputy secretary-general of the NOCC, Hem Thon began to play a bigger role in administrative matters and pursued the work of chronicling the evolution of Cambodian sports with a missionary zeal. He has not only given this huge compilation insight but also packed it with rare anecdotal titbits.
His success in the pool and his zealous work by the poolside wlll define him and his legacy.