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There is an old Khmer saying that women are as fragile as carefully folded clothes. Not only does Peou Sophoan refuse to follow the sentiment expressed in the idiom; she puts on the proverbial folded clothes every weekend, heads to the rugby pitch and proceeds to race up and down the field, dive on the ground, sweat and ruin both her opponents and her uniform. Peou Sophoan might not be typical, and she certainly isn’t traditional, but she is a proud Cambodian woman who has even gone on TV to sing the praise of her chosen sport and scoff at the notion that it’s an inappropriate activity for females.
Peou Sophoan said that her initial interest in the sport was sparked while watching the boys play. But as soon as her school formed a female rugby team in 2005, her time as a spectator was over. “There wasn’t a thought in my mind to refuse the opportunity to join the rugby team” offered by Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, which she was part of throughout high school. “If a male can do it; why can’t a female?”
Even her parents’ disapproval couldn’t hold her back from pursuing her favourite sport. Five years later, the 21 year-old is the captain of the Cambodia Rugby Union, the country’s premier women’s squad.
Peou Sophoan and her barrier-breaking squad have represented the Kingdom at competitions in Thailand and Laos for the Southeast Asia Games, where they failed to win the tournament, but nonetheless returned with their heads held high.
“I never stopped playing hard,” she said. “I learned a lot from the experience of playing abroad. We have only been training for a few years. We can’t expect to beat teams that have been together for over a decade.”
But Peou Sophoan admits that it wasn’t easy to get used to the physical toll she pays to the game. “I like playing, but it takes a lot of energy,” she said. But after practising three hours a day for the majority of the last five years, she is no longer phased by physical strain.
“Peou Sophoan is a woman who is naturally a leader and she has the heart of a competitor,” said her coach, New Zealander Andrew Newman. “Whenever she talks, every member of the team listens to her before any of the other women.”
Peou Sophoan said, however, that she was disappointed with the lack of interest in rugby among her sisters in Cambodia. “I encourage and welcome any girl who wants to join us,” she said. “They will be unable to refuse the opportunity to join when we start to enter more international competitions.”