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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Paralympian Milford ‘blown away’ by women’s ball skills

US wheelchair basketball coach Mary Milford
US wheelchair basketball coach Mary Milford (second left) conducts a training session in Battambang last month with the Cambodian women’s team. Anya Minko

Paralympian Milford ‘blown away’ by women’s ball skills

American Paralympic gold medalist and disability sport expert Mary Milford is in no doubt that a bright future awaits Cambodian women’s wheelchair basketball.

Appointed as the national coach/technical advisor by the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled), or CNVLD, to run its Women Working With Women program, Milford made her first visit to the Kingdom in the last week of May, during which she conducted a training clinic for 30 national team probables at the Battambang National Rehabilitation Center.

Her weeklong trip was funded by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Affable and daringly dynamic in her approach, Milford systematically put the participants through their paces with court practicals, theory and video lessons, a special fitness regimen and nutrition advice over eight hours of training per day.

Even amid all this hectic activity in such a compact time-frame, she also lent her expertise in the classification of all the athletes in line with international standards.

The 2008 Beijing Paralympics gold medal winner in wheelchair basketball makes a return trip to Cambodia in October to train the national team that she has helped select to try to take them to the South Korean city of Incheon for the Asian Paralympic Games.

The CNVLD is working closely with Milford, the National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia and the Korean organisers of the games to secure a wild-card entry for the Cambodian team and to gain affiliation with the International Wheelchair Basketball Federation.

Now back home in Alabama, Milford, in this email interview with Post sports writer H S Manjunath, shared her experiences in Cambodia and her thoughts on the wheelchair basketball program and its marked impact on social life.

It was your first trip to Cambodia. How did it come about?
I believe Chris Minko, secretary-general of the CNVLD, sent an inquiry to Carole Oglesby, who is a professor of sport in California, about a female wheelchair basketball coach interested in coaching in Cambodia.

Carole then passed the inquiry on to Lakeshore Foundation, an adapted sport and recreation facility in Birmingham, Alabama. I happen to work and coach at Lakeshore and my boss presented the opportunity to me. It sounded like an opportunity I could not pass up!

What was your first impression upon meeting with the team’s members?
Before I arrived, I tried not to have any preconceived ideas or expectations of the team or Cambodia, but I did wonder what level the women would play at.

After the first 30 minutes with the ladies, I was so impressed how naturally talented they were and how quickly they picked up new skills and concepts. By the second session the women were transitioning perfectly from offense to our defensive set.

Being a high achiever yourself, could you see that glint of hope and promise among the participants?
Yes! Definitely. The women have a lot of natural talent and skill. The hard part will be teaching them the game.

Wheelchair basketball is a very cerebral game. It’s not just about which team is the fastest or strongest, it’s about which team can play as one unit and play with intelligence.

I know the women are capable of doing this, they just have to learn the details of the game in a very short amount of time.

You spent a week training the team. What was a typical day like?
Each day we had two on-court training sessions and one classroom session. Our first session ran from 7:30 to 10:30am, and then we took a break for lunch.

After lunch, we had a classroom session from 2 to 3pm and then finished the day with another session on the court from 3 to 5pm.

During our court sessions, we focused on the basics of the game, including ball and chair skills, and I also introduced some basic offensive and defensive concepts. The women were also able to watch video of other national teams play.

The women really enjoyed this, and it helped them understand the concepts they were working on.

How significant was it in your life to come to a country like Cambodia to train aspiring athletes?
When I returned home from Cambodia, everyone’s first and natural question was: “So how was it?” What a loaded question.

Overall it was a wonderful, life-changing experience. I did not do a lot of research on Cambodia before I arrived, because again, I did not want to have a preconceived notion of what it would be like.

While I was not a fan of the heat and humidity, the people were absolutely wonderful and made me feel so welcome. After a couple of days I began feeling like a local, crossing the street with authority and learning some Khmer.

In terms of basketball, I was blown away by the skill level of the women. Yes, there were challenges with the language barrier and the quality of adapted sports equipment, but we can work through those challenges.

I am most excited about the 16 women I get to work with when I return. I can’t wait to see how they progress and grow.

How excited are you to get back in October?
I am excited to get back to Battambang in the fall. The women progressed quickly with just a few days of instruction, so I can’t wait to see how much progress is made.

I also want to learn more of the language so I can communicate better with the local people.

What’s your most memorable experience during the trip?
Probably the best part of my trip was the final night when several of the women invited me over to their house for a traditional Khmer dinner.

I was so impressed with how much food they were able to make with just a few bowls, a cutting board, and one burner.

It was wonderful to sit on the floor with the ladies, share a meal with them and listen to their stories, even though I didn’t always know what they were saying.

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