Standing at nearly 185cm, taekwondo star Sorn Seavmey is used to towering – whether it’s over her opponents or aside Prime Minister Hun Sen.
For a time, she thought her height might lead her down a different path. “My sister and I wanted to be models when we were young,” Seavmey said with a laugh in an interview this week. “We always watched the modelling shows on TV.”
“I never wanted to be an athlete,” she added. “I was afraid of the exhaustion and the pain.”
Nonetheless, two weeks ago, the 21-year-old Seavmey became the first athlete in Cambodian history to qualify for the Olympic Games, when she defeated a hometown favourite to win gold in Manila at the Asian qualifying tournament.
Cambodians have competed at eight Olympic Games since 1956, but always as wild-card entrants. She won’t compete again until she gets to Rio de Janeiro, where taekwondo matches take place in late August. She will be one of 16 in her weight category.
The win surely marks the height of her athletic career so far, and provoked immediate fanfare in Phnom Penh. But sitting down with Post Weekend, Seavmey was calm, and a little reserved. It’s a demeanor her South Korean coach, Choi Yung Suk, says has served her well against tough competition.
She’s also quite a realist. “Of course I’m happy with my successful result,” she said. “But all athletes who have a chance to come to the Olympic Games are the best people, and now many people are just awaiting my next result.”
Born in Koh Kong province, Seavmey grew up poor in Phnom Penh. She is the youngest of four siblings – all tall for Cambodians – and the third to train in taekwondo.
She and her siblings turned to sport in order to earn money for the family (her brother and sister also did boxing and judo), and they were soon recruited to study the Korean martial art.
Seavmey didn’t begin fighting until 2011, when she was already 16. But within six months, Yung Suk had placed her on the national team.
He saw in her a natural talent, and a natural advantage, he said. In taekwondo, a competitor receives one point for a kick to her opponent’s body, and three for a kick to the head. If an opponent can’t reach your head, he explained, it makes things difficult. “It happens especially in Cambodia,” he grinned.
Yung Suk’s relationship with Seavmey reflects a broader trend of South Korean investment in the sport in the Kingdom.
He has coached Cambodia’s national team since 1996, and is one of a number of Korean coaches in Phnom Penh.
The Booyoung Taekwondo Center, completed in 2012 in the Olympic Stadium complex, was equipped and funded by a South Korean company, and is the only facility dedicated to taekwondo in Cambodia.
Members of the team often travel to South Korea to train, especially in advance of competition; Seavmey spent two months there before Manila.
The coach says that Cambodia is already known worldwide for its strong taekwondo competitors, but the sport is still growing. Local interest increased after Seavmey’s last big win: Cambodia’s first gold medal at the Asian Games, in 2014.
It’s no wonder that Seavmey received a hero’s welcome at the airport when she returned to Phnom Penh last Friday. She’s since been shuffled between home, Cellcard-sponsored meet-and-greets and various government celebrations.
She won’t return to the gym until at least next week, Yung Suk said. Speaking to Post Weekend, she still wore lipstick from a previous event.
The win hasn’t shifted much for Seavmey’s routine, which has centred on taekwondo for some time. Her coach would rather she not ride on the back of a motorbike. “He is very afraid of an accident,” she said.
She still regularly trains twice a day, five days a week – though the regime will soon become more intense. She heads back to South Korea in advance of the Olympics for at least a month’s worth of training.
For now, she’s not on a special diet, but she’s worried about the food in Brazil, and maintaining her weight. Seavmey is in the heavyweight category (+67kg), and she must remain below 73kg in order to compete.
But for those supporting Seavmey, the calculus has certainly changed.
Vath Chamrouen, president of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, has never had the pleasure of prepping a sure bid for the Games. “Now we are only working hard to prepare for the Olympic Games,” Chamroeun said via phone this week.
The prime minister first congratulated her on his preferred platform, Facebook, and has since honoured her in the capital. Upon her return, she received a sum of $20,000 from the government for her qualification.
Speaking this week, the young athlete seemed irked by the higher stakes. “I get pressure from people in all directions, and it’s hard to make them happy,” she said. “It’s not just the people I feel that I have to try for, but the whole country, especially the government.”
Seavmey sees many things in the future: a return to studying law at university, starting her own business. Perhaps a medal will be one of them.
But for now, she revels in the possibility of something new. “I have experience – but just with Asian countries,” she said. “The Olympics are one thing I’ve never done before.”