Cambodia's top two swimmers will soon face their moment of judgment in the pool of London’s Olympic Aquatics Centre as they compete in 50-metre freestyle heats.
First up is Hem Thon Ponleu, who has been drawn in Heat 3 of the men’s competition alongside various other less well-known swimming nations.
The 22-year-old has a personal best time of 27.22 seconds, ranking him sixth in the eight-man group ahead of Giordan Harris of the Marshall Islands and Prasiddha Jung Shah of Nepal. He has safely avoided the outside lanes and will set off in lane 7 today at approximately 4:15pm Cambodian time.
However, a high placing by Ponleu in his race will not guarantee an advance to the semifinals, with only the best 16 times from all of the eight heats making the cut.
The Cambodian is way off the world record mark of 20.91 set by Brazilian César Cielo, who will feature in the last heat.
Ponleu said he was mildly confident of achieving a personal best today, while noting he was “not afraid” of appearing on the biggest of stages.
“Training has been similar to that in Cambodia, except the temperature of the pool here is colder,” he told the Post.
Meanwhile, Ponleu’s 18-year-old niece, Hem Thon Vitiny, will make her appearance in the women’s event tomorrow at around 4:15pm Cambodian time. She also has been bracketed in Heat 3, where she has the fourth best time of 31.45 seconds.
Other nations in the group include the Maldives, Mali, Ethiopia, Qatar, Tajikistan, Rwanda and Antigua & Barbuda.
Again, the Cambodian is highly unlikely of making the top 16 and progressing to the next round. The world record of 23.73 by Germany’s Britta Steffen may well tumble in London, with the Netherlands’ Ranomi Kromowidjojo holding the best qualifying time of 24.10 going into the event.
Both swimmers are double Olympians, having attended the Beijing Games four years ago.
“I’m really excited and proud to be part of these Games,” said Vitiny. “The conditions are very similar to those in China, just a few cultural aspects associated with Europe. I’m really happy here.”
Coach Hem Kiry, who represented the Kingdom in Sydney and Athens and still holds the Cambodian 50-metre freestyle record with 26.48 seconds, said he was happy with their preparation.
“It was a good thing that we came to England early and had time to get used to the time zone and climate,” he said, noting the lateness of the setting sun in British summertime. “The first few days, we were suffering from jet lag.”
Two training swims per day, an hour to 90 minutes in the morning and the evening, were all that was required from each athlete. “We focus on technique and improving their speed and strength,” said the coach.
The pair were also given free reign of the Olympic Village buffet menu.
Hem Kiry revealed he had been working closely with Vitiny on breathing technique between her strokes for the past week. “We try to keep her taking breaths when her head is lower in the water. She seems to be progressing a lot,” he said.
The Cambodians plight has been slightly boosted after receiving free high-tech swimsuits courtesy of manufacturers Speedo.
To contact the reporter on this story: Dan Riley at [email protected] reporting from London.