Cambodia’s second swimming hopeful Hem Thon Vitiny slashed more than a second off her London 2012 personal best to record 29.37 seconds, yet that gallant effort could only take her into fourth place in the women’s 50m freestyle heats in a packed Olympics Aquatics Stadium in Rio on Friday.
After a smart getaway from lane 8, Vitiny stayed strong until well past the halfway mark, but she began to lose touch with Yesui Bayar of Mongolia and Miri Alatras of Palestine before Colleen Ferguson of Marshal Islands powered her way down the middle in lane 4 to win Heat 4 in 28.16 seconds. Bayar held on for second in 28.40, with Alatras in third at 28.76.
In a thrilling three-way finish in the final, Denmark’s Pernille Blume took the gold in 24.07 seconds, pushing American Simone Manuel into second place at 24.09 seconds, with Aliaksandra Herasimenia claiming the bronze medal for Belarus in 24.11 seconds.
Highlighting just how close the race was, Great Britain’s Fran Halsall was a mere 0.06 seconds off gold and 0.02 seconds off bronze to finish in fourth place. It was the seventh time a British swimmer just missed out on a medal at the Rio Games.
Speaking of Vitiny’s performance in the heat, coach Hem Thon Kiri said: “I am delighted Vitiny put up a strong performance to improve her previous best of 30.44 seconds.
“She was up against strong contenders. I feel it is a positive sign that her months of training before this event worked well.”
The stadium was filled to a capacity crowd 30,000 watching the pool action, and Vitiny later admitted that the highly charged atmosphere made her feel a mixture of excitement and nervousness as she walked to the poolside for the start.
“Initially I was overawed, but by the time I prepared for the dive I was focused and determined to do well. I am sad I could not get past this stage, but at the same time I am happy I improved my timing,” Vitiny said just minutes after she got out of the water in an interview recorded for her followers back home in the Kingdom.
Hopes on Seavmey
The end of the competition for Vitiny hardly dampened the mood in the Cambodian camp, which was in a celebratory mood, sensing that the swimmer’s performance had boosted the country’s prospects of a medal at the SEA Games in Malaysia next year.
Vath Chamroeun, the secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, noted that both Pou Sovijja and Vitiny have created room for optimism even though they fell short of making it to the next phase.
“Both Sovijja and Vitiny have managed to deliver what we expected of them like with all of our other athletes, and that was to do their best and show improvement of their capability.
“I am certain that Nary Ly in the women’s marathon and Chov Sotheara in women’s wrestling will do us proud in the next few days,” he said.
Cambodia’s medal hopes, however, are firmly pinned on taekwondo star Sorn Seavmey, who continues her build-up under the guidance of coach Choi Yong Sok for the fight of her life on Saturday against Reshmie Oogink of the Netherlands, in a bout sceduled for a 7pm start, Cambodian time.
With Singapore and Vietnam ending their gold medal droughts in Rio, the ASEAN bloc will be wishing a medal success for Cambodia, which is among the 129 countries yet to win an Olympic medal.
At the start of the Rio Summer Games, there were 131 in the list of nations without Olympic medal success.
But Kosovo, in its first appearance at an Olympic Games, along with South Sudan competing as new independent countries, stormed out of that club with a gold medal.
Fiji also emerged out of that shadow with a gold in the men’s rugby sevens for the tiny South Pacific archipelago nation’s first Olympic medal.