Cambodia’s hopes of a first-ever Olympic medal rest on the strong shoulders of taekwondo star Sorn Seavmey as she prepares for the fight of her life and the kingdom’s biggest in the women’s +67kg last 16 against the vastly experienced Reshmie Oogink of the Netherlands at the Carioca 3 Arena in Rio at 7:30pm on Saturday Cambodian time.
The 21-year old Incheon Asian Games gold medallist entered the heaviest of the female Olympic categories as the country’s first to win the qualifying competition in Manila just as her seven-year-older Dutch rival did from the European zone in Istanbul.
“It is a classic contest between youth and experience in one of the most interesting divisions to watch and the toughest to compete in,’’ Sorn Seavmey’s coach from her teens Choi Yong Sok, who has been working on her fitness and skills for the past three weeks in Rio, said in his pre-bout remarks.
For athletes competing in this elite company, the countdown for the crucial first round is always tinged with some anxiety and self-doubt, but Choi Yong Sok for one is confident that when the moment to focus arrives, Seavmey will be right there regardless of who she is fighting or her rival’s reputation.
“She no doubt has that big-stage temperament. She has about a dozen international fights to her credit compared to her opponent who has nearly 10 times more, but it is Seavmey’s reach and speed of foot which matches her speed of thought that could make a huge difference,” said Choi Yong Sok, a South Korean, who has made Phnom Penh his second home, serving as a head coach for nearly two decades.
The burden of expectation has never been heavier for any other athlete in the history of Cambodian sport after her incredible feat of winning the first Asian Games gold in nearly 70 years and achieving Olympic qualification for the first time since the Kingdom’s debut appearance in 1956.
For her part, Seavmey has been quite clear and vocal about her overarching ambition in Rio – to win a medal.
“As the day of the fight approaches, it is a mixture of nervousness and excitement like some of my teammates have felt. I am well aware of the huge anticipation back home. I will do my very best. I hope that massive support gives me strength,” Seavmey said at the Olympic Gymnasium after a training session.
“We do not want to put too much pressure on her. We know she is capable of winning a medal if she performs to her best potential. We do hope that she can overcome her Dutch opponent and go to the quarterfinals with that momentum behind her,” National Olympic Committee of Cambodia secretary-general Vath Chamroeun said.
As is to be expected, there are significant disparities when it comes to the size and height of competitors in this division, thus profoundly impacting techniques.
Seavmey’s rival Oogink and Team USA’s Jackie Galloway are regarded as fancied outsiders in a group that is loaded with formidable names like Shuyin Zheng of China, Bianca Walkden of Team GB, Mexico’s Maria Espianoza and France’s Gwladys Epangue.
Oogink, like Galloway and Milica Mandic of Serbia, is widely feared for her speed. The Dutch hopeful narrowly missed a slot for Rio in the first round of qualification through Olympic ranking points, but earned a place by winning silver at the European qualification tournament.
The winner of the 2015 Grand Prix is well known for her sound technique and has often used her jump spinning round kick to devastating effect.
While Seavmey is well down the order compared to Oogink’s current world ranking of 75, the historic significance of the fight for her personally and Cambodia in general could trigger the best in her, and she has expanded her arsenal after intense training in South Korea
Both Seavmey and her coach are focusing on a “one fight at a time” policy and have shut themselves off from any other mindset.
Meanwhile, the last of six Cambodian competitors, Neko Hiroshi, will line up for the men’s marathon on the concluding day of the Games on Sunday.