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Not to be stereotypical, but most girls in Cambodia these days seem to prefer to participate in low-impact sports like swimming, badminton and aerobics. Sam Sothea is quite different. She is a world-class fighter.
When she was 11 years old, she decided to enroll in Judo class despite her family’s pleas not to. Five years later, she is a tough girl to track down due to the rigorous training and travelling schedule that an internationally successful athlete must manage. But I was able to catch up with her last weekend for an interview.
“I was shocked and excited,” said Sam Sothea, a student at Indrak Tevi High School in Phnom Penh, about receiving a bronze medal while representing Cambodia in the under-44 kg Judo competition at the International Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, held in mid-August. “It’s the first time I joined such a big event and won a prize like this,” she said about the games, which hosted athletes from 205 countries.
Before her international breakout last month, she had already fought in the past three ASEAN games in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, but didn’t place.
“I like playing sports, especially fighting, since it improves my health and teaches me to protect myself. I think girls can learn how to fight like boys,” she said. “And my parents and siblings blamed me for learning to fight.” She added that it wasn’t easy to convince her family of the sport’s benefits.
With limited knowledge or familiarity of the sport, Sam Sothea’s initial foray into Judo was unspectacular and rather harrowing. “Judo took a lot of energy and I was scared of collapsing and really hurting my body,” she said. “But once I got used to it I started having fun with my peers and I have never felt healthier.”
Sothea began to spend two hours a day practising Judo at the gym, and soon her reservations went out the window. Within a year of beginning her training she entered the national championships and took second place. A year later, in 2007, she took the top spot and hasn’t relinquished it since.
“During fights, I need to have more energy than my opponent and be quick and flexible with my technique,” she said. “Of course the confidence and support from my family also helps me.”
“Sothea is a committed athlete with real determination, effort and strong focus on what she is doing,” said her coach, Lach Vuthy, adding that leading up to her success in Singapore, she ramped up her training schedule to three times a day. “I am so proud to see a female Cambodian athlete bring a bronze medal back home.”
Some day Sam Sothea wants to be a Judo coach, but for now she is focusing on building her career as an athlete. “I have to practise more to maintain and improve my capacity,” she said. “Even though I won a bronze medal I can’t stop practising.”