PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia gained a new hero in August, as Jessa Khan, a 16-year-old Cambodian American, won gold in women's jiujitsu, unleashing a torrent of admiring posts, shares and heart emojis across social media.
Khan was only one of two gold medalists from Cambodia in this year's Asian Games that ended early September, but to the country, the medalists offer hope that they can before long tackle competitors in the region and even globally. Cambodia certainly hopes to shine in the 2023 Southeast Asian Games that it will host in Phnom Penh, but experts say the country will need to put in a lot more training -- and funding -- to succeed.
Three medals at this year's Asian Games sets a new record for Cambodia, but it is still far below those of Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Cambodia was sending athletes to the Olympic Games from 1956 to 1972, but that stopped during the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. The country sent athletes to compete as "wild cards" again in 1996, but it was not until 2016 that Sorn Seavmey became the first Cambodian to qualify in official competitions.
The biggest names in Cambodian sports are mostly women, despite the country being deeply patriarchal. Cambodia's Ouk Sreymom was world petangue champion in 2017, and Ke Leng held the world title in the sport for two years before her. And Sorn was the first to win gold in taekwondo for Cambodia at the 2014 Asian Games before competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
At least in Sorn's case, it was a lucky break, fortified by her own unwavering determination, that pushed her to the peak of the sport. She stumbled into taekwondo, after her first coach recruited her when she tagged along to her sister's practice. From there she rocketed through two years of training and quickly began netting medals in regional competitions. Her life today -- hours of training interspersed by an Adidas modeling gig and trips to the mall with friends -- is starkly different from before.
Cambodia's high-performing female athletes stand out partially because there are few support programs that specifically target help for them. The wins by Sorn, Khan, Ouk and Ke have been achieved because of their own drive and thanks to their individual trainers. Vath Chamroeun, secretary general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia, said the government was aiming to build female representation in national athletics to 30% to 40% by 2023.
Sorn said other young women had told her they were inspired to try taekwondo and other sports because of her achievements, but the 22-year-old also describes some of the challenges women face in trying to break into international athletics: Her aspirations get in the way of academic and family commitments. Her family accepts that she will soon leave for pre-Olympic training in South Korea, but Sorn still feels pressured to stay in the country.
That pressure is even stronger for emerging athletes, she explains. Most female competitors she meets often opt out of training during national exams, often because parents value education over athletics.
"Some athletes got strong training so when they go to compete abroad, they can get medals but just not a gold medal," Sorn explained. "Their techniques are quite similar to those of other athletes. It's just that when they [reduce training to] finish grade 12, they will not be able to qualify for national selection."
Phalkun Mam, the Cambodian Tennis Federation's head of junior development, said youth tennis participation still largely leans toward boys, who make up 70% of young participants, even though the organization tries hard to recruit girls.
And retaining young talent has been a primary issue across gender and sports.
The current school and work system makes it difficult for athletes to train. Vath said he was working with the Education Ministry to provide grants for athletes, but Cambodia's gratuitous public holidays force national athletes to take breaks when they should be training.
When a player shows potential on the courts, Tennis Cambodia has to ensure practice time, locations and costs align to keep them in the program, Mam said. "In the past six or seven years we haven't had a big base of great players," Mam said. "We might not be able to see better players until we can get to regular tournaments."
Jessa Khan noticed the difference when she trained in Cambodia ahead of her Asian Games victory this year. Khan said she was challenged and adequately prepared by her trainers at H/Art Jiu Jitsu in Phnom Penh, but she only had two sparring partners. At her home base, the Art of Jiu Jitsu Academy in California, she has more than 60 potential opponents.
There is also a great need for funding, most coaches said. Mam said Tennis Cambodia could only send a handful of young tennis players abroad, and they were not attending nearly as many competitions as Thai or Vietnamese youth players. Even within Cambodia, the organization can only afford to host a few competitions.
But Vath said he was trying to demonstrate to budget officers that Cambodia will not be able to get more medals until it can send more athletes to compete abroad and in qualifying games. "Local competitions are only for [gauging] local skills," he said. "We have to go abroad to know the competition."
Federations attract private-sector sponsors for events, but Vath said most business owners primarily supported events only when they could clearly see an advertising opportunity, rather than supporting for the good of the country.
"It's not a field that makes money," he said. "It's a field where you spend money to make people proud of the country."
The athletes who shine -- like Sorn and Saly Ou Moeut, who grasped gold in the men's jet skiing at the Asian Games in August -- generally compete in individual events. Cambodia still needs a larger pool of competitors, and more financial resources, to perform in team sports.
Teams are aware, and they are looking to shift that. And though Cambodia's national football team has struggled in recent tournaments, they did manage to bring in Japan’s Keisuke Honda as their general manager and coach, a surprising acquisition given his status as one of the best players in Asia.
Some federations have also sought out Cambodian athletes abroad, like Khan. Cambodian Jiu Jitsu Federation President Vivaddhana Khaou said other federations had attempted to recruit Cambodians abroad, but he spent months researching jiujitsu athletes before finding Khan.
Khaou first tried to recruit her more than two years ago via social media, after deciding she could hold her own in regional competitions without being challenged beyond her limits. Taking Cambodian athletes abroad, via the country's easy citizenship process for ethnic Khmers, has been a way to boost local talent.
But that is only a partial solution, Vath said. He believes it will take time to build the strength of local training programs. But bringing in ethnic Cambodian athletes from abroad offers a quick improvement, even if it draws some criticism from local fans.
That has not stopped the country from thrusting itself forward. Vath is committed to impressing competitors from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations both in hospitality and performance when Cambodia hosts the SEA Games in 2023.
Cambodia is already constructing a sprawling, 85-hectare sports complex -- with a $170 million grant from China -- and the government is expected to plunge $400 million into the event. But training will be the real challenge, Vath said. From the start of the new year, the committee is rolling out a four-year campaign to scout athletes in Cambodia and abroad, and train them extensively.
Part of that recruitment will come from the biennial National Games. In its second iteration this May, the the Olympics committee spent $1.5 million over the 11-day event, and an additional $600,000 on dramatic opening and closing ceremonies. Like some of the smaller tournaments sponsored by government officials and local businesses, the games take a nationalistic tone, with full military parades and strong representation from the Interior Ministry's own team.
Cambodia has never climbed above a ranking of eighth place since it joined the SEA Games in 1995, so Vath is hoping to submit more than 700 competitors across sports -- a large leap from the 169 athletes put through in 2017 -- and aim to place fifth or sixth overall.
Cambodia's head coach has confidently set the goal. He knows all about the trials and tribulations that lie in wait. After his own brush with international glory -- he wrestled in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia -- he understands what Cambodia is facing.
"If we do better than previous games, that's okay, it's a success. People won't complain," he said with a laugh.