women in her house in Cambodia

How wheelchair basketball changed these women's lives

When the Cambodian women’s wheelchair basketball team headed to their first major international competition, they found wins off the court.

Sieng Sokchan coaches and plays for the Battambang Roses women's wheelchair basketball team in Cambodia. Paralyzed since she was 11, Sieng also coaches the national team.

Photograph by Lauren DeCicca, National Geographic

In a buzzing stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, Sieng Sokchan clenched her fists and waited anxiously for the announcement she’d been working toward for years: “Ladies and gentlemen, the women’s wheelchair basketball teams that will participate in the 2018 Asia Para Games are China, Japan, Thailand, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.”

Sieng hugged and congratulated her teammates, who were seated next to her in wheelchairs, all wearing basketball shirts in blue and red—the colors of the Cambodian flag. In seven months, they would travel to Jakarta, Indonesia, to represent their country at the Asia Para Games, where nearly 3,000 athletes from 43 nations would compete in 18 sports.

As captain and coach, Sieng would lead the team of 12 women to its first major international contest, a daunting endeavour in the best of circumstances. But these players face tremendous challenges off the court as well—poverty, mobility impairments ranging from limited stamina to partial paralysis, and a lack of athletic resources.

“Training women to this level of the game hasn’t been easy,” said Sieng, 37, who is also a single mother of two. “We all have different struggles and had to work harder than everyone to overcome them.”

The World Bank ranks Cambodia as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Ten percent of the population experiences disability; the country also has the highest number of amputees in the world per capita. Forty years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, the effects of its bloody regime still linger. Millions of landmines that were planted alongside the Thai border continue to devastate local communities, including Battambang, Sieng’s home town.

Roses, frangipani flowers, and basketball

A landmine didn’t cause the injury that paralyzed Sieng when she was 11. Instead, it was the political tensions that are still pervasive in Cambodia today.

“It was the Khmer New Year Holiday and my family was away. But I stayed to help my grandmother, who was selling vegetables and honey in the market,” she said. “It was raining hard that day. We waited until 6 pm in the market for the rain to stop.”

Recent elections had been close and there were often protests in Battambang town center. Walking home with her grandmother, she was hit three times by something that felt like a stick. It was gunfire: A demonstrator had started shooting, and three of the bullets ended up in Sieng’s back.

Although she was rushed to a hospital, Sieng didn’t receive treatment for a week. The hospital was full of wounded soldiers and her family didn’t have any money.

When the bullets were finally removed, Sieng barely survived. The doctors had waited too long: Sieng’s spine was damaged. She would never be able to walk or move her legs again.

Formerly a bright student, Sieng dropped out of school. The following year, Sieng’s mother died in childbirth.

“Dark thoughts often lingered in my head,” she said. “I felt angry, but there was no one to talk to.”

Then she was introduced to wheelchair basketball by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a humanitarian organization working to rehabilitate communities affected by armed conflict. The first time Sieng scored a basket, she was euphoric. She had never felt a sense of achievement like that before.

Seeing Sieng’s passion and enthusiasm for the sport, Jess Markt, a paralympic athlete and ICRC consultant, recruited her to assemble and coach a women’s wheelchair basketball team in Battambang. Within weeks, Sieng was meeting other women in wheelchairs, including Tao Chanda, who became a close friend.

Like Sieng, Tao, 34, was born poor without access to proper medical care. Unlike Sieng, she had never walked. When Tao was one, she suffered a high fever that left her unconscious for a few days. Her legs never fully developed; she also contracted polio. Tao got her first wheelchair when she was a teenager. Before that, she had to crawl wherever she wanted to go.

Now she loves her wheelchair: “It’s so easy to move around with it.”

Both Sieng and Tao spent years hating their bodies and resenting what had happened to them. But with every ball that went through the hoop, every dribble, and every shared struggle over lunch with their teammates, they realized that their bodies were still strong and capable of wonderful achievements.

The team called themselves the Battambang Roses. They had basketball shirts made in a mustard-yellow color, to represent the architecture of their city. For years, they practised on a court with old wooden hoops, surrounded by mango trees and coconut palms. The air in the court carried a whiff of frangipani flowers, which often fell from the trees and piled on the ash-grey asphalt.

Playing through heavy monsoon rains or sweltering tropical heat, the Battambang Roses gradually started to excel—so much so that when the National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia put together a women’s wheelchair basketball team, seven out of the 12 selected players were from the Battambang Roses.

Momo, soup, and luck

Back in Battambang after the qualifying games, joy transformed into anxiety. Sieng had bigger responsibilities now and less than six months to prepare.

“Sometimes there are fights or jealousy within the team,” she said in the midst of the intense training. “But I tell my players that we are poor and disabled women. Our society is already discriminating against us. We must be kind to each other. If we don't love and support each other first, no one will.”

One month before the 2018 games, the National Paralympic Committee of Cambodia invited the Battambang Roses to Phnom Penh, the capital, where the team would get to practice in professional facilities. Then, they would fly to Jakarta.

“When I first started playing this sport, I had a dream of competing outside of Cambodia. And this dream now comes true,” Sieng beamed on a starry evening, as she prepared her suitcase on her bed. Her tiny tin house, which she shares with her two sons, is located in lush rural Battambang. She commuted to the basketball court via red, muddy roads, using a rusty wheelchair motorbike that she’d inherited from a friend who had recently passed away.

“But it’s difficult to travel in my condition. You see?” Sieng said, gesturing to her bag, “More than half of my suitcase is filled with diapers. There are not enough wheelchair facilities.”

Her neighbor promised to take care of her sons while she is away. Sieng’s older son, 16, would also have responsibilities towards his younger brother, an exuberant 5-year-old whom Sieng affectionately called the “Pig Boy.” However, she still felt raw saying goodbye to them, as the tearful Pig Boy clung to her.

After an intense schedule of training in Phnom Penh, seven Battambang Roses, now representing Cambodia, boarded a plane to Jakarta singing folk songs and Buddhist blessings. Sieng said they prayed to come home with medals, asking for the first, second, “or even the third place” in the Para Games.

The glitzy megacity of Jakarta pulsated with the energy of hosting one of the most important sporting events of the year. The mascot Momo, a white-chested bondol eagle whose name stood for “motivation and mobility,” was in all corners of the city, sometimes in a wheelchair or with an amputated leg.

In her tiny room in the Athletes’ Village, which she shared with Tao, Sieng said, “All the teams who made it here are strong. I feel we have done our best, but let’s see what happens.”

The Cambodians first game was against Iran. Iran won it, 86 to 18.

For the next game, they faced a formidable opponent—China, who had already beaten Iran 94 to 18. Before the match, Sieng said she didn’t expect to do much damage against a country of 1.4 billion. Cambodia’s population is 16 million, smaller than some Chinese cities.

“They have much more resources than us,” she said. “They train every day in professional facilities. They are taller. They have money.”

China won the game, 116 to 14. In the changing rooms, she approached the Chinese captain and shook her hand. “Good game,” Sieng said, without a trace of bitterness. “Congratulations,” she added, using the few English phrases she knew.

On the bus back to the Athletes’ Village, Sieng’s fellow athletes no longer sang cheerful folk songs. Tao leaned her head against the window and covered her face with a shawl.

“Chanda, Chanda.” Sieng tapped her on the knee. “It’s not over yet. We can still compete for the third place. We are learning so many new techniques from our opponents.”

Homesickness, culture shock, and stress had started to take a toll. Some of the team members fell ill, and many had difficulties adjusting to the local cuisine.

“We eat a lot of soup at home but in Indonesia, they don’t like soup that much,” Sieng complained.

Cambodia lost the next game—this time against neighboring Thailand, 24 to 60.

When Cambodia also lost their last game—against Afghanistan, 36 to 54—it marked the end of the Asia Para Games for them. The team had scored the least of all the teams, placing Cambodia last.

That night in the Athletes’ Village, everyone quietly retreated to their rooms to pack and prepare for the journey back home. Sieng and Tao analyzed footage of the games to see how they could improve.

The next morning, the mood in their room was serene. The two women didn’t have any medals to pack, but Sieng had brought previous medals for good luck. In the qualifying rounds and other games, they had beaten many powerful teams including India, South Korea, and Laos.

“I still think we are winners,” Sieng said, displaying the medals. “We showed people the power and talents of a disabled woman.”

During their basketball journey, they had traveled abroad, been featured in the media, and even met the Queen of Cambodia. Strangers often stopped Sieng to take selfies with her.

When they went back home to Battambang, Sieng and Tao would still get to play a sport they love, with women they now called sisters. They had loving families and the Pig Boy couldn’t wait to kiss and hug his mother.

“Starting my life in such a difficult way,” said Tao, “I never thought I would get this lucky.”

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