Cambodian swimmer Pou Sovijja found himself in at the deep end in the men’s 100 metres freestyle Heat 2, finishing last but one among eight contestants in a time of 54.55 seconds at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on Tuesday.
The 21-year old US-born Games debutant dived into lane 7 to a fairly good start, in fourth after the first 20 metres. But when the race came to the boil at the halfway mark, Souvijja alarmingly dropped to seventh, finishing ahead of only Gurung Sirish of Nepal.
The line-up attracted the world’s attention as one of two Syrians in the refugee team, Anis Rami, was a competitor. He finished sixth, 0.3sec ahead of Sovijja, with 54.25sec.
The field included Sri Lanka’s Abeysinghe Matthew Duncan, Nicaragua’s Mena Miguel, Malta’s Chetcuti Andrew, Mozambique’s Mogne Igor and Zimbabwe’s Sean Michael Gunn.
“I was a little nervous going in there but then I pushed my hardest to get a good time and it was fine,” Sovijja said after the race.
“It was crazy out there,” the US-based swimmer said of the atmosphere as he walked out for his Olympic debut. “It was awesome to walk out and hear all these people clapping and yelling. I really took in that moment, and that memory will remain with me forever.”
The entire Cambodian contingent was by the pool to cheer Sovijja on, and it will again be in full force on Friday when Hem Thon Vitiny, the only member of the squad with previous Olympic experience, lines up in a tough women’s 50m freestyle heat.
“I have now been here for over a week. I have tried my best to adjust to the conditions here. The facilities have been good,” Vitiny said. “I am looking forward to my event. I know it’s hard to compete against the world’s best, but l will do my best.”
While members of the Cambodian camp put on a small party to celebrate marathon runner Neko Hiroshi’s 39th birthday, the Kingdom’s first-ever female Olympic marathon runner Nary Ly was pounding miles for Sunday’s 42km run.
The 43-year-old Nary Ly has been training in Kenya for the past several months, and she flew directly from her training base to Rio.
“Excited but a little bit anxious and nervous,” is how she described her feelings as it dawns on her that an Olympic run is no longer a dream but a reality waiting to happen.
“The more we get closer to marathon day, the more nervous I will be. But now l just try to stay away from the entertainment and fun of being here and try to stay focused and get more rest outside my training program,” said Ly, who started out running for fun before becoming passionate about the discipline.
Meanwhile, taekwondo star Sorn Seavmey has stepped up preparations with coach Choi Yong Sok as the 21-year-old Asian gold medallist’s date with Olympic destiny gets nearer. The toughest fight of her life, which will also be the biggest in the Kingdom’s sporting history, is billed for August 20.
But early next week, it will be wrestler Chov Sotheara’s turn to seize the Olympic moment. The 33-year-old goes out as the first female wrestler to represent Cambodia, and only the second ever at an Olympics after Vath Chamroeun, the current secretary-general of the NOCC.
She has made up her mind that this will be her final competitive appearance, and as her coach Thin Vichet said before setting out, she will not go down without a fight.
The goal that NOCC has set for the six athletes is to perform better than they have done before. The NOCC assigned press attache Ken Gadaffi to gauge the mood of the team members as to what is going through their minds.
“I think the Cambodian athletes are working very hard but they are obviously nervous. “This is understandable as the entire team, except for Vittiny, is making their Olympic debut and watching the world’s best athletes train and dine together. Surely this sends shivers down their spines,” Gadaffi said as his assessment.
“However, the coaches and officials have been trying to motivate them and get them focused. We believe anything can happen with determination. The goal is to better previous records in each discipline and that would be a huge result,” he said.