From Rice Fields to Ice Rink: Cambodia’s First Figure Skating Team

Like most Cambodians, 27-year-old Sen Bunthoeurn had never heard of figure skating a few years ago, let alone seen an ice rink or strapped on a pair of skates. But after stumbling upon YouTube videos of the sport a few years ago, he talked his way into a job as an ice skating coach. Now, inspired by Japanese figure skating star Yuzuru Hanya (whose videos he watches whenever he gets the chance) he and fellow skater Khiev Panha, 23, are about to become the first Cambodians to represent their country in a winter sport at this month's 2017 Southeast Asian Games.
 
Qualifying for the international competition is a major achievement for the pair, both of whom come from rice farming families and only took up skating as adults. It’s also a big deal for tropical Cambodia: not only does the country have no snow or ice, it also has just one (tiny) ice skating rink – situated above three floors of food courts and clothing boutiques at a Phnom Penh mall.
 
That Cambodia, an impoverished nation still recovering from decades of conflict, is now training athletes to compete in such an expensive and demanding winter sport reflects its rapid development. But Panha and Bunthoeurn – who occasionally tumble to the ice during training – are realistic about their chances at the Games. Instead of chasing medals and glory, these underdogs profess a poignant hope: to inspire a new generation of Cambodians athletes to believe they, too, can achieve their dreams – no matter how wild those dreams may seem.

 Photography © Omar Havana. All Rights are Reserved

Intro by Holly Robertson

This story was published in BBC and South China Morning Post