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Say Tola / Khmer Times Share:
Oum Sam Tharoth discovered her passion for Bokator - one of the oldest existing Khmer martial arts - when she was 17. Supplied

Success is a simple, easy word. But a successful person knows that it requires perseverance, patience and rising up from challenges to be called such – things most of us are scared of. But it’s different for Oum Sam Tharoth. She has overcome punches and kicks to make herself worthy to be called a Bokator fighter, the first woman Bokator fighter at that. The 27-year-old Bokator and martial arts stalwart reveals her story to Say Tola.

Good Times2: What drove you to become a Bokator fighter?

Sam Tharoth: I discovered my passion for Bokator in 2008, when I watched my friend doing the sport. I felt amazed because I never thought that Cambodia had this kind of fighting sport. I then went to ask Master San Kimseang if he’d accept girl Bokator fighters. He warmly welcomed me as it was the first time a girl took the challenge of the sport.

I kept pushing myself to learn Bokator – everything about it. I completed all the techniques in five years. I’d never fought as I didn’t find myself a partner that fitted my category. I just used to perform in pagodas, bars or charity events. However, I really had this enthusiasm to be on a fight because it’s the only way I can measure my strength in the sport. So, I expanded my learning and training to Khmer boxing. I had a very intensive training. I practiced every day. I didn’t really dream of anything more than being a Bokator instructor. Something in me wants to spread this sport and let the young generation practice it. But I must admit that I have secretly wished to play the role as a fighter in a movie since I was young.

In mid-2013, I learned Mixed Martial Arts just so I can test my body, my endurance. I went to compete in many local and international MMA events since then.

Sam Tharoth in action during one of her boxing matches in Phnom Penh. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: Combat sports are not widely practiced by women in the country. How did your family react to the field you’ve chosen?

Sam Tharoth: Honestly, my mother was really surprised when told her that I will be competing in boxing in 2012. I had to keep telling her that it’s not about killing or hurting people, it is a sport. A good sport. And I want to know my own capabilities. I promised her that that would be the first and last time I’d be joining boxing because I wanted her to calm down. That time, I was very sure that I would lose because my competitor has had experiences in the sport. But you know what, even I was surprised when I knocked her down in the third round. It was an amazing feat.

I broke the promise I made to my mother. After that success, I felt motivated to join more competitions. People started to know me as a boxer, especially motorbike drivers. Some girls also said that they were inspired to achieve the same things. You see, women are physically weak. They have to abide by the social norms – like not wearing shorts or not going far. They are expected to be good in the kitchen and serve the family. But I want to erase that preconception. I told myself that I will win over those norms and will achieve my goals.

Sam Tharoth, centre, practices Bokator before her team’s performance at the French Embassy in April. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: What challenges did you encounter as a Bokator stalwart?

Sam Tharoth: I gave up being a fighter in 2010 or 2011 because my dad was really ill and my mom was not happy with what I was doing. She said I spent too much of my energy and time, not to mention money on something I am not earning anything from. She was somehow right. But when I realised that no other woman was practicing the sport, I felt really upset. I really want to make Bokator alive in Cambodia again.

Aside from the money issue, people kept talking bad things about me – that I got big muscles and that I could kill a man who dared to marry me. Motor drivers kept teasing me that they could bring me down easily. Sometimes, my mother agreed with them. But she also could not stand the fact that her daughter was being criticised. So, I practiced Bokator again.

Learning boxing and Bokator not only gives me physical strength. It has also developed my mental skills. I have learned to control my mind and be more optimistic. I always tell myself that a bright future is waiting for me if I don’t give up. And it was all worth it.

Sam Tharoth has performed in various local and international Bokator and martial arts competitions. Photo: Supplied

Good Times2: What made you say that it was worth every hardship you went through?

Sam Tharoth: I was part of the team that performed Bokator in South Korea in 2010 for the World Martial Arts Festival.We were competing against 29 countries and we won the second prize. In 2012, I won first place in another martial arts-slash-talent contest. In 2013, I performed in Japan during the celebration of the 60th anniversary of bilateral ties between Cambodia and Japan. It was there that I got really motivated to continue what I was doing.

In 2014, I tried to put my passion for Bokator into a different ‘arena’- film. I started doing some acting. I was part of the ‘First They Killed My Father’ film by Angelina Jolie in 2016. I just came from an MMA fight when I got called to try out for the role. I never thought the trailer would show many clips of me. That led me to more acting opportunities.

My most favourite role is in ‘Jailbreak’. It was a really great film because it showcased Bokator. Many young people said they were inspired to try the sport. That made me excited and proud. After that, I was called to shoot for another local film production. In March 2018, I won the Cambodian International Film Festival (CIFF) Talent Award. I never really thought I would be able to receive such recognition because I am not a celebrity. I opt to maintain a low profile.

Sam Tharoth plays the role of a policewoman in Jailbreak.

Good Times2: Is there any difference in your Bokator techniques when you perform it in the arena and in a film?

Sam Tharoth: Usually, the roles I get do not require me to be too dramatic. My role is to fight and fight endlessly. In the movies, I don’t get hurt but I must admit that the job is exhausting. For ‘Jailbreak’, I was required to do the same scene again and again if somebody moved the wrong way. We had to shoot from 8 am to 2 am. Inside the boxing ring or arena, meanwhile, I fight hard and get hurt in the process because I have real opponents. But I get so much learning and experiences from all my endeavours.

Good Times2: You have risen up from all the tough situations and had your way as a Bokator performer and fighter. Because of this, many young Cambodians find you as an inspiration. What do you want to tell those who want to follow your footsteps?

Sam Tharot: Many people have approached me and told me that they also want to do what I am doing, but they can’t do so because of their family commitments. To me, children have to talk calmly to their parents and explain about their passion and dreams. It took me many years to let my mother understand my sport. It was not easy but I have proven to her that this is what I want to do.

My mother used to think bad about my sport because I was always in the company of men, who were my fellow trainees. But I told her there’s nothing wrong with my sport. She eventually understood.

Negotiation and language are the key factors for you to convince the people around you to understand and accept what you do and who you are. And do not think whether what you’re doing will scare men away. Love yourself and pursue your dreams.

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