Cambodia’s most decorated swimmer of the 1960s talks out about his past and current involvement in the national team, with big hopes for the future
Hem Thon (far right) stands with the Cambodian National Swimming team by the swimming pool of the Olympic Stadium complex. Photo Supplied
Hem Thon (far right) poses with the 1964 Cambodian National Swimming team during his heydey as the top swimmer in the Kingdom.Photo Supplied
HEM Thon shows a determination that goes beyond his 67 years. The national swimming legend began his career in sports way back in the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime of Norodom Sihanouk, and he gives a fascinating insight into his past.
Raised in Koh Dach commune, Kandal Province, Hem Thon was initially interested in football. He played for royal team, Cercle Royale Khmere, alongside the top national goalkeeper of the time, Lim Sak, who remained one of his closest friends.
It was not by accident that Hem Thon found himself in the swimming pool near Wat Phnom, at a site now occupied by the American Embassy. “Two reasons pushed me to join” the swimming team, he recalls. “Firstly, because the encouragement of older athletes, and secondly, I was alone because most of my football teammates went to China.”
The top national swimmer
Hem Thon quickly rose up the ranks, making his national championship debut in late 1960, where he finished in second place. From then on out, he dominated the domestic scene for a decade, taking nothing but gold.
Hem Thon says he lost count of the amount of medals he received from national swimming events, but remembers grabbing three bronze medals at his first international event, the 1963 Ganefo Games in Indonesia.
During the third SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1965, his medal haul included two silvers and three bronzes.
However, his happiest moment came in an international competition in Singapore in 1965, where he won gold in the 100m freestyle, beating swimmers from four other nations in the region. In total, Hem Thon won 12 medals at international competitions during his career.
His career as an athlete came to an end in 1971, with age becoming a factor and the political situation in the Kingdom rapidly becoming unsafe. During the Khmer Rouge regime, he relocated to Pursat province, where, tragically, five of his children died.
Despite ceasing to compete in the pool, Hem Thon was adamant about playing an active role in the development of sport in his home country. “I decided to return to the sports sector after the war because I don’t want to lose what I had done before,” he said.
In 1983, Hem Thon and a few friends started the Federation of Amateur Swimming of Cambodia, an internationally recognised organisation that changed to the Khmer Amateur Swimming Federation in 1996. Hem Thon was instated as General Secretary and head coach in 1994, as well as serving as a government official in charge of sport education until his retirement in 2000.
The national hero has stated that his mission will not be complete unless young Cambodian swimmers win medals from international competitions.
His talent in the water seems to have been passed down to his three sons, one daughter and one granddaughter. However, only his youngest son, 19-year-old Hem Thon Ponloeu, and his granddaughter, 15-year-old Hem Thon Vitiny, still compete in swimming, both featuring on the national team.
Much work still to be done
According to Hem Thon, the Cambodian swimmers of today are producing better performances than in his generation, but have a long way to go before they can begin to hold their own in regional competitions.
“While we are just starting the first step, other countries have reached the tenth step already,” he opined.
“It is difficult to say that [the young Cambodian athletes] will win medals from the upcoming SEA Games in Laos because, honestly, we are not well-prepared yet,” admitted Hem Thon. “But I hope in 2011 or 2013, they will realise our dream.”
Indeed, things look promising, with his granddaughter Vitiny making the last eight at the 2007 SEA Games in Thailand, setting a new national record in the process.
Despite his age, Hem Thon keeps remarkably busy. In the morning, he is often at Apsara TV, where he is one of a panel of experts on the sports news. Recently he was elected as a member of National Olympic Committee, a job he describes as complicated. Evenings nearly always see him training his students of the national team. The swimming federation has yet to find an office, so Hem Thon always takes related work to do at home.
“Most of the work I do voluntarily, and sometimes I spend my own cash,” he said. “If I didn’t think of the national interest, I may have left [the sport] a long time ago.”