As anticipation builds for next month’s Southeast Asian Games in Malaysia, a couple of figure skaters from Cambodia are among the more unlikely athletes getting ready for the competition
The door opens and the icy air rushes out of what must be one of the coldest rooms in Phnom Penh – the temperature feels just a few degrees warmer than your standard meat freezer. Atop the air conditioned oasis of Phnom Penh’s largest mall, Ice Park is one of the city’s only public skating rinks. Open to customers of all ages, it doubles as the training ground for the nascent national figure skating team.
Today the dehumidifier is broken – a regular occurrence I’m told – creating a rolling fog rising up from the ice that consumes anyone on the rink. Sen Bunthoeurn, 27, and Khiev Panha, 23, carve up the ice, expertly dodging oblivious skaters as they fine tune their toe loops and axels.
Clair Ben Zina, the national team’s English head coach, watches closely as she skates alongside them, demonstrating at one point how to properly plunge a toe pick into the ice to transfer elegantly from one jump into the next. Spectators and fellow skaters watching the duo at Aeon Mall might be impressed, but it will take much more to wow the judges in Malaysia at the 29th SEA Games on 19 August.
What might appear remarkable to the untrained eye won’t earn a desirable score from the judges in Kuala Lumpur next month. Despite the fact that the Cambodian rink is much smaller than the one in Malaysia, and not to mention heavy with public skaters, Bunthoeurn and Panha, the only two Cambodian skaters to qualify, are training rigorously for the international competition.
“It’s the first time we’ve put international skaters out, ever. It’s a big opportunity to say that we’re starting out. We have got a lot of young talented skaters and these guys at the moment are the role models,” Ben Zina, who arrived in Cambodia four months ago to take the coaching gig, told Southeast Asia Globe.
This year’s SEA Games will not only be a first for Bunthoeurn and Panha, but mark the first time that dozens of athlete will compete in the games, which for the first time include a number of winter sports in a region where cold climates are scarce.
Both Bunthoeurn and Khiev were born in rural Cambodia and made the move to Phnom Penh to enrol in university. Bunthoeurn was looking for a job and came across the opening for a skating instructor at Ice Park.
“When the boss interviewed me, he asked me if I knew how to skate. I said, ‘I like ice skating and I want to skate,’” said Bunthoeurn. “They gave me just 15 days” to learn how to skate, he added. That was four years ago.
Panha took a different route to the rink, taking a job as a Zamboni driver at Ice Park. “I decided to become a Zamboni driver because it was like driving the tractor on the fields at home,” he said.
Bunthoeurn taught Panha how to skate about two years ago and they have practiced together almost every day since. Bunthoeurn is the more talented of the two, but realised that going up against renowned skaters from countries like the Philippines and Malaysia will be something entirely new.
“The competitors who we will compete with performed in the Olympics when I just started skating,” he said with a coy smile.
While they have to make the most of Aeon Mall’s public rink, their top competitors head to world-class training centres in US, Canada and Japan. To get a sense of what they will be going up against, the internet has been essential, said Ben Zina.
“YouTube is invaluable in a country like this,” she said. “I don’t know what we’d do without YouTube these days for that reason.”
With support from the government and the private sector, Ben Zina has her sights fixed on the horizon, having signed a two-year contract to build a national ice-skating team and a 10-year plan to put a Cambodian on the ice for the 2026 Winter Olympics.
“We’re so new and we’re so behind on development that it’s very, very difficult for them to consider getting a medal,” she said of Bunthoeurn and Panha’s chances at this year’s SEA Games.
“Realistically, the first skater we can get to get points to qualify for the Olympics would be in ten years time… It’s just about planning where they will compete, how many of them and what jumps we want them to have along the way,” she said.
The 2026 Olympics seem a long way off, but for Cambodians to be ready they need to start training now at the ages of seven or eight, according to Ben Zina. And although Bunthoeurn and Panha are unlikely to return with silverware, they can show Cambodians that there is a future on the ice.
“I want to show the world that Cambodia also has ice-skating and has got this level. I want to hold my flag,” Bunthoeurn said. “We need to have sports like other countries. In figure skating [other countries] are so famous and Cambodians also want that.”