Cambodia is not among the participating nations at the Commonwealth Games but one of its proud sons, 22-year-old weightlifter Be Vannara, is competing in this year’s event in New Dehli in the green-and-gold colours of Australia, the first Cambodian native to earn that distinction.
Be Vannara, who grew up in Phnom Penh, was whisked away from the Kingdom at the age of 10 with his three sisters to start a new life in Australia. His father had found refuge and a job as a grape picker in a Yarra Glen winery in Victoria after being persuaded by one of his brothers to relocate.
Not until he was old enough to go to nearby Mount Lilydale Mercy College did Be Vannara realise to the fullest extent what his father and his family had gone through under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Two of his uncles had been killed, his grandmother had lost an eye and his father was left with deep psychological scars.
It was one of Be Vannara’s uncles who ventured out to Australia first in a small boat after fleeing Phnom Penh to Thailand. Once he got asylum, he called out his brother for a short work trip at a farm in Victoria. The owner of the farm was so moved and impressed by the heartbreaking story and her employee’s work ethics that she helped the entire family move over in 1998.
Be Vannara was no ironman when it came to Aussie Rules football, in which he dabbled during his early teens. He was too skinny at the time to succeed in a sport so physically demanding. Then his attention turned to weightlifting.
Even today he is not sure as to where he drew his impressive weightlifting strength from, but probably the hours of picking grapes and carrying loads on his back working alongside his father helped him in his sporting career.
By the age of 16, Be Vannara had grown to be the strongest schoolboy of his age group under Hawthorn Club coach Anthony Dove, whose only worry at the time was that he could not persuade the youngster to do more than one training session a week. “His heart was just not in it,” said the coach.
But Be Vannara, who took up sport more as a diversion from school than for the love of it, was instead seeking permanency, eagerly awaiting a citizenship that would remove most of his nagging uncertainties. Once his papers came through in November 2009, he began training five to six days a week, and the results were amazing.
In March this year, Be Vannara recorded his personal best of 248 kilograms – 113kg snatch and 135kg clean & jerk – and celebrated his first call up to the Australian team in May by winning a bronze medal at the Oceania Senior Championships in Suva, Fiji.
A great honour was then in store for him when he became one of few Australian lifters, male or female, to join the Senior Elite Standard for 62kg.
Be Vannara’s best lift of 248kg may not be enough, however, to get him a Commonwealth Games medal. He will have to step up a great deal to match such fierce competitors as Aricco Jumitih of Malaysia (272kg), and the Indian pair of Omkar Shekar Ottari (264kg) and Rustam Sarang (263kg), but he is already a winner in the category of tenacity trumping adversity.
Be Vannara is competing in the finals of the 62kg Men’s event today from 3:30pm Cambodian time.