It's a mild morning at the Phnom Penh Sports Club and as the early sunlight glitters off the water, swimmers rack up length after length of the 25-metre aqua lap pool.
Their swimming styles vary, but one in particular stands out: a combination of breaststroke arms and freestyle kicks. Another is moving through the water in an aquatic variation of the moonwalk.
For one fellow pool patron, Australian social worker and long-time swimmer Sian Thomson, they are strokes of genius.
When she’s not in the Tuol Tom Pung pool, the 33-year-old watches the goings on from the gym above and has taken to naming the techniques.
“I think it’s an interpretation of what feels right. It’s great. I have spoken to a young boy who’s been teaching himself for two years,” she says. “I think there is a creativity and innovation there, and every stroke is so unique and different. And I’m sure that they’re working different muscles that have never been worked by Westerners.”
Former Cambodian national team swimmer and assistant school coach, Narak Kun, says he can recognise a fellow Kampong Cham native by their distinctive arm movements.
In the absence of lessons, he thinks children who grow up near lakes or rivers, like he did, copy the style of their peers, eventually refining it into an efficient swimming stroke.
Sitting in the cavernous cement seating above the Olympic stadium pool on a wet afternoon, the well-built 26-year-old demonstrates, moving his arms frog-style while twisting his head.
“People from Kampong Cham swim the frog crawl,” he says. “Head up, moving it around.”
Sitting next to him, her hair still wet from nightly training before a sudden onslaught of rain, is Olympic swimmer Hemthon Vitiny.
Born into a Cambodian swimming dynasty, 19-year-old Vitiny didn’t learn the sport through teaching herself, but she says it was hard to begin with all the same. She was taught by her famous grandfather and her uncle, Olympian Hemthon Ponloeu.
In contrast, for Narak Kun, who still feels at home at his old training ground, although his days are now taken up by tuk tuk driving and teaching, the sport was a matter of either sink or swim.
Raised in an orphanage in Kampong Cham, navigating the local river was a matter of following the lead of other kids.
“When I jumped into the water, I’d submerge. I could swim by myself but I didn’t know the correct strokes. I just saw how the other boys’ swam,” he said.
One of those kids was his cousin, who was plucked out for special training in Phnom Penh.
Before he turned 13, Narak entered a swimming competition on the Mekong River and came fourth. The next year, he came third. Finally, he too was selected for the national team and taken to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium.
Now he helps teach swimming to children at the iCAN international school but believes the lack of public swimming pools (Olympic stadium’s sparsely supervised 50-metre is Phnom Penh’s only one) presents the biggest barrier to children learning to swim.
“In Cambodia, in international schools, they have swimming pools. If I have children I’ll try to teach them how to swim, it’s a very important skill for life. If you can’t swim when you go to a river you’ll drown.”
In May this year UNICEF released a working paper on child drowning in Asia, identifying it as a leading cause of death in all age groups after infancy – with a death rate up to 25 times higher than in high income countries.
Rather than one single problem, researchers found two separate epidemics that needed to be addressed. One affected children under four years old (the most at-risk group, with an average drowning age of 3.7 in Cambodia) for whom parents and carers must be targeted, while for older child victims, education had to be directed at the children themselves.
“For the children who are taught to swim, the evidence suggests that they are protected for life (or at least through childhood) and they also provide ‘herd immunity’ for their peers through their ability to rescue them when they are drowning,” the paper states.
At the privately-run Phnom Penh Sports Club, general manager Cot Hemchantha says beginner swimmers, both local and foreign, are a daily sight.
After receiving an increasing number of requests from patrons, he organised two sessions a day with instructors, in the club’s shallow training pools.
“Normally anyone who cannot swim requests a lesson and I organise it,” he says from his front office, looking out onto the poolside. “Many of (the children) come from organisations like orphanages.”
Outside, three little girls, swaddled in inflatable armbands, are splashing about at the behest of their swim teacher.
Their skills will serve them for life, but in a less daring fashion than the maverick moonwalker in the next pool.
To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]
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