At Ice Park on the fourth floor of Aeon Mall, the Cambodia Ice Skating Federation is seeking to capitalise on a surge in interest in the sport after the recently concluded Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
But Cambodia’s wannabe Olympians grew up a world away from Alina Zagitova –15-year-old Pyeongchang gold medal winning figure skater – a detail the Federation understands.
American-coach Rick Reyor, newly-installed head coach of Cambodia’s ice skating team said despite the unique challenges facing the sport in the Kingdom, progress since the inauguration of the Federation in 2015 had been promising.
“We have two coaches which started in January this year, he said. “Previously this skate rink was public but in June of last year we started to allocate private sessions dedicated to figure skating and short-track began just this February.”
The national figure skating team currently consists of nine skaters – thirteen in total including junior members and reserves. A further six athletes are training for short-track with an additional two not on the A team.
“Our total numbers [of participants] for both combined is around 100, he said. “Each year we have a certain number of scholarships for kids who are talented and are showing prospect on the ice. They have training twice a week, with free skates and free ice time, and from that group is actually how we chose the national teams.”
Coach Reyor says that while parents are supportive they do not always understand the commitments behind what becoming a competitive athlete takes – especially in a country where professional sports are rarely a route to success.
“Trying to work around school hours makes things a bit difficult for us. Our training can only really go from around 5:20 in the afternoon to 8:30 in the evening due to their school commitments. In other parts of the world training takes place morning, afternoon and evening.”
He added that it may be early for his youngsters to think about the upcoming 2018 Asian Games, but the Federation did have their eyes on other regional and international tournaments in the future.
“The first competition for short-track – the Asian Games in Jakarta – this year may be a bit of a stretch because it’s all quite new for them, he said. “But we definitely have our eyes on the next Asian Games.”
With equipment renowned for their expense, the Federation has been relying on donations to help obtain suitable gear vital to their training.
“We have a small number of donations but we do receive some help from the Government,” said Ms Sotheavy Long, Secretary-General of the Cambodia Ice Skating Federation. “We had a meeting with the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia just last month and it was presided over President Thong Khon. On the agenda we talked about issues with most centred around funding.”
Currently, the Federation receives no funding from the NOCC, although the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports does provide some help.
“Our electricity bill here totals around $20,000 per month and which is paid by our President, Mr Meng Hieng. And that’s before we can even think about hiring international coaches to provide training,” she explained. “Sponsors and donations are essential for us if we are to continue to provide training the first generation of Cambodian Winter Olympians.”
Kuala Lumpur was the first SEA Games in which ice skating was included as a discipline and was also the very first time Cambodia had competed on the international stage at a winter sport.
“In Kuala Lumpur, we had two of our older skaters who had been training here for three years; Sen Bunthoeurn and Khiev Panha. They literally started as adults but they were super promising. Hopefully, for the next SEA Games, we should have a brand new crop of skaters who have learned the fundamentals. So they should have a much better showing.”
In the men’s figure-skating category in Malaysia, Bunthoeurn, 27, placed 8th overall while Panha, 23, finished in 9th of nine participants.
Coach Reyor concedes there is much work to be done, but the groundwork laid by outgoing British coach Clair Ben Zina has made his job easier.
“[She was] phenomenal. From turning the whole programme around from just recreational to having goals and training facilities and schedules, to giving the kids actual Olympic dreams, he said. “But our big goal is for the 2023 SEA Games here in Phnom Penh, and is something which we are definitely pushing for. But for that, we need access to a full-size ice rink – the one we have here is not big enough. In the future, we need to take our teams abroad to further their training.”
With ice skating more accessible than ever to young Cambodians, the Federation believes time, training and nurturing will pay off in the next few years, as skaters look likely to remain the only winter sport participants from Cambodia.
“As the sole representative of Cambodia in a winter sport competition, these kids will be the future of the country as they compete in the Asian Games and SEA Games, and eventually we hope the Olympic Winter Games, said Coach Reyor. “I don’t think anywhere in the world is quite like what we have here in Cambodia. It will be very interesting so stay tuned and watch. What we see now to what we will see in two, five, and ten years will be completely different.”
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