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Van Vun: From zero to Para Games hero

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Wheelchair athlete Van Vun at a training session ahead of the men’s T54 race in the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020. SUPPLIED

Van Vun: From zero to Para Games hero

More than 30 years ago, polio – a viral infection that can cause paralysis and death in its most severe forms – was a very real threat to Cambodian children.

Van Vun also became one of the many unvaccinated children in the Kingdom who suffered at the hand of the disease.

Born in Saang district of Kandal province, Vun contracted the polio virus and became paralysed in both legs at the age of 3. Born into a farming family as the eldest child, he faced many challenges and experienced bitter feelings.

The family’s inability to afford a wheelchair meant Vun was unable to go to school, and dropped out in grade 5.

“Because I am disabled, I was often discriminated against and looked down upon by my fellow villagers. This made me feel deeply unhappy,” he told The Post in a June 29 interview.

“Often people ignored me, as they did not think I would ever amount to anything. I also felt like I was not receiving much motivation to try,” he added.

Vun got a new lease on life in 2006, when at the age of 20 he was offered a place on a radio and television repair course by the Association for Aid and Relief of Japan.

That same year, he was introduced to the sport of wheelchair racing by an Australian NGO. This was the first step in his sporting journey.

After graduating from his course in 2008, he opened a repair business in his home village of Prek Ta Prak.

Two years later, just as his business was faltering, he was invited to train in wheelchair sports in Australia for a month. He accepted the invitation, and has never looked back.

In addition to the overseas training experience, Vun also received a racing chair from Australia and was called up to join the Paralympic Federation and represent Cambodia in regional and global sports events.

He surprised everyone in his first international event, winning silver medals in the men’s T53 100m and 200m at the 2011 ASEAN Para Games in Surakarta on the Indonesian island of Java.

After such a dream start, Vun described his feelings.

“I was really excited and felt like a new person. I was proud of myself and felt like I had proven something – to myself as well as others,” he said.

In addition to bringing honour to the nation, he also received a reward of $8,000 for returning home with two silver medals.

The changes Vun felt within himself may have the driving force behind his efforts to bring more victories to the nation. Two years later, he achieved the greatest success of his sporting career.

Vun blew everyone way and became a household name among Cambodian sports fans in 2013, when he romped home in all three individual events at the Myanmar games, taking gold in the men’s T53 100m, 200m and 400m.

These victories not only grew his fame, but his bank account, with the government offering a $10,000 incentive for each gold medal returned to the Kingdom.

“After claiming these golds, I no longer felt any shame at my condition. Fear of being ostracised left me that day,” he said.

His sporting success – and the prize money he has earned – made it possible for him to purchase a house where he currently lives with his wife and two children.

“Disabled people should not despair or become discouraged. We have to persevere and study hard. We should never let ourselves be overlooked,” he said.

In addition to competing at the ASEAN level, Vun has also raced at the Paralympics in Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2022, as well as the Asian Para Games, held in South Korea in 2014 and Indonesia in 2018. He relished the experience, but was unable to find medal winning form.

After being reclassified in the T54 category, he came home in third, claiming bronze in the men’s 100m at the 2015 ASEAN Pare Games in Singapore.

The 36-year-old has not given up hope and is training hard at the Morodok National Stadium in preparation for this year’s ASEAN Para Games in Surakarta. The games run from July 30 until August 6.

“I still believe I can achieve strong results for my country, and I am focused on my training ahead of the games. I am a little worried about my wheelchair because I have been using it since 2011 and it’s getting old,” said Vun, who will compete in the men’s T54 100m, 200m and 400m.

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