July 2013


I just arrived back in Phnom Phenh after the week in Battambang culminated with an all-day tournament on Friday. The tournament was unbelievable! The women played incredibly well and with such intensity, despite each team playing five 30-minute games in one day with temperatures in the 90s and bright sunshine beating down on the court the whole time. I broke the groups from Battambang (more experienced) and Kampong Speu (very new to the sport) into four equal teams mixed between the two cities, and it was amazing to watch them interact as though they’d been teammates their whole lives.

We played a slate of five games in the morning, took a break for lunch and rest, then played five more games in the afternoon. The teams were very evenly matched and all played well above what I would have assumed was their potential – a few of the games had teams scoring in the low 30s, which is an amazing total for a 30 minute game at this level of experience. Several players stood out as natural competitors, elevating their games significantly above what they’d shown in a practice environment. This is always exciting – and exactly what I’ve seen in Afghanistan with the men and women as well – in that it gives a glimpse into which players will be the natural leaders when we form a national team to compete internationally.

One of the top players, Channy, played so hard through her team’s first four games, including an overtime game in the semi-finals (during which she played every minute), that she ended up getting sick on the sidelines after the game. She was so dehydrated that she was throwing up, so several players and orthopedic centre staff – both men and women – rushed to her side, fanning her with palm leaves and helping her drink water. After 15 minutes and a lot of water, she was feeling normal again and demanded to play in the tournament final. She ended up leading her team to victory on a last second shot by her teammate, Nimol – the perfect end to a perfect day of competition. My colleague Didier summed up the moment perfectly after the tournament, saying, “A year ago, nobody would have glanced at Channy as she was vomiting; she would have been ignored and left to fend for herself because she’s disabled. Now, the instant she showed signs of a problem, she was surrounded by people – men and women, able bodied and non – doing anything they could to help her. She was treated like a true star athlete.”

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Channy lines up for a free throw during the championship game

One other anecdote from a day filled with great stories: One of the players from Kampong Speu is named Met (pronounced Mayt). She has cerebral palsy, which limits her ability to speak and to hold her attention for more than a few seconds. During the week of training, Mary, my interpreter, and I were constantly corralling Met, who would regularly wander off during a group exercise because she had forgotten to stay in line. I would just patiently call to her or run over to steer her back to the group, and she would always re-engage without a problem. Often the players would laugh when Met got confused, though I was fairly sure the laughter wasn’t mean spirited. This assumption was confirmed at the end of the tournament, as I was presenting each team with their respective medals. When I put Met’s bronze medal around her neck and announced her name, the polite clapping that accompanied each player’s award was replaced by deafening cheers and applause! Met doesn’t show emotion on her face due to the muscular effects of CP, but her mouth and eyes rose in a barely perceptible grin as she absorbed what was undoubtedly one of the the happiest moments of her young life.

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Met receives her bronze medal a split second before the crowd erupts

Over the next three days, I will be traveling back and forth from Phnom Penh to Kampong Speu to work with the KS players each day. I can’t wait to see Met and her teammates smile again as they take the success they’ve already enjoyed a few steps further.

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Daiyong accepts her Most Valuable Player trophy to cheers from the rest of the players

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Didier, Mary and I pose with the champs (from left: Channy, Nimol, Dtaim, Phualla, Thorn, Sinoun, Sekla)

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My usual expression, rain or shine, during the week in Battambang

I’ve now had two days of coaching the Battambang and Kampong Speu teams here in Battambang, and it has been a phenomenal experience so far. It’s hard to believe I’ve only been in Cambodia for three days; it feels like it’s been three weeks given all the vibrant, amazing people I’ve met and wonderful experiences I’ve had coaching these women.

The Drive
My colleague, Didier, and I drove five hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang on Sunday after I’d registered zero minutes of sleep on my first night in the country (that after a 27 hour flight… ouch). In spite of my exhaustion, I was blown away by the endless beauty I saw on our trek. This is the greenest place I’ve ever been – and that’s saying a lot for a guy from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. From rice paddies to jungle trees to mossy bogs, vegetation blankets every square inch of visible space that’s not a road, a house or a cleared area of dirt. The only non-green things dotting the roadside landscape are skinny cows and chickens as well as the occasional massive water buffalo.

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A typical view of the Cambodian landscape on the road to Battambang

Constantly interrupting my nature-fueled reverie was an endless stream of frighteningly arbitrary traffic patterns on the two lane highway on which we were traveling. Cars, trucks and motor scooters (lots and lots of motor scooters) wove at random between the two oncoming lanes. One truck is passing another by using the oncoming lane while a scooter is coming straight at it? No problem, the scooter will just swerve off the road without slowing down, somehow maintain control, and veer back onto the pavement without showing a glimmer of annoyance at almost being obliterated in a head-on collision. When I commented on the fact that Cambodian drivers might be even crazier than their Afghan counterparts, Didier responded in his Belgian accent, “If you follow the rules of the road here, you are dead.” Good advice.

The Weather
I came into this trip expecting some pretty helacious heat and humidity, especially given that I’d be spending most of my days on outdoor basketball courts. I’ve been incredibly lucky, though, in that this has actually been one of the coolest few days of the entire year. It’s the rainy season, which means it rains at least a couple times per day, but we’ve only had one big storm; the rest of the time it’s been periodic light rain that doesn’t last long and dries quickly. It’s also been in the low-to-mid 80s every day – much cooler than usual here. The humidity is still crazy, and I’m sweating through a couple shirts each day, but given the alternative, I have no complaints. I have to assume this cool period is going to end at some point while I’m here and I’ll get indoctrinated into what a Cambodian summer is really like.

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One minute before this picture was taken, Didier and I were enjoying a pleasant and dry lunch on a restaurant’s (thankfully) covered patio

The People
The people here are extremely friendly and welcoming. I get a few curious stares from the scooter drivers of Battambang as they dart past me, but the looks are never suspicious or malevolent like I’m used to in some areas of Afghanistan (to be clear, Afghans are wonderful, welcoming people as well, but a bit wary of western strangers at times).

The expatriates I’m working with here are truly a cast of characters and also fantastic people across the board. Didier Coorman runs the ICRC’s orthopedic activities in Cambodia and is a very mellow guy who’s spent the last 15-plus years doing humanitarian work in a variety of very intense developing countries. He’s been in Cambodia for a bit over a year and loves it here – it’s understandable that it would feel like a paradise after years of operating in places openly at war. Didier is about to get married and his soon-to-be-bride, Rukhshona, is from Tajikistan, just north of Afghanistan.

Chris Minko is the head of the CNVLD, the NGO that organizes the basketball teams here and has previously had great success building a standing volleyball league for amputees; one that eventually took a silver medal at the world championships! Chris is an Australian who’s spent the last 17 years working to establish disability sports programs in Cambodia. He’s also a professional musician who is the chief songwriter and guitarist in the up-and-coming band, Krom, which tackles heavy subjects like sex trafficking in Southeast Asia through hauntingly beautiful acoustic guitar and vocal arrangements. Chris is one of the more interesting people I’ve met in my travels; I’ll definitely be writing more about him in the future.

On the first day of training, I arrived at the court and everyone realized at once that we didn’t have an interpreter to help me communicate with the players. Luckily the team’s manager, Sochan, knew a woman who happened to be available on 15 minutes’ notice, and she’s been phenomenal. Her name is Mary and she’s originally from the Philippines, but is married to a Khmer guy here in Cambodia and has become fluent in the language over her 10 years living here. Given that she has zero background in basketball, she’s picked up the concepts incredibly quickly and made them easily relatable to the players, even instructing them on techniques without me being present at a few points. She makes my job a great deal easier.

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Mary and Chris pose with signed copies of Chris’s band Krom’s CD

The Players
I’ve had such a fantastic first two days working with the 28 players from Battambang and Kampong Speu (mixed into two groups based on experience and ability) that it’s hard to put into words how much their energy and enthusiasm is infecting me. I’m pretty exhausted after traveling so far and having very little recovery time, but the second I get on the court with these women and see their smiles and excitement, the tiredness fades instantly away.

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Learning to pass and having fun doing it!

Much like my experience with the Afghan women’s players, the Cambodians are dealing with a very challenging socio-economic environment that marginalizes women and people with disabilities and, also like the Afghans, they are pioneers in pushing for different lives than their culture expects them to accept. The main difference here, though, is that the players don’t have the same reticence at the beginning. A few are shy, of course, but by and large, they were laughing and openly enthusiastic from the very beginning.

Another new experience I’m having here is working with several players who have disabilities that partially or fully incapacitate one of their arms. This means they’re learning to play basketball in a wheelchair while pushing both wheels and controlling the ball all with a single arm. And they’re doing it! It’s a truly unbelievable display of human perseverance and I find myself staring open-mouthed several times each practice at the things they’re able to do. This afternoon, Chirap, one of the one-armed players, made her first free throw attempt during a scrimmage game and all the players on the court and watching from the sidelines erupted in cheers. The beaming smile on her face when I gave her a celebratory high five (another skill I just taught them!) absolutely melted my heart. The amazing thing is that was one of probably ten such moments in just the first two days. There’s still so much more joy to come.

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Helping Vichara, who only has use of one arm, tighten one of the straps on her chair

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Teaching Phualla how to pick up the ball while moving in her chair

I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia late last night as I embarked on my first teaching experience and first job with the ICRC outside Afghanistan. I’m here for two weeks and am thrilled to be bringing the teaching model I’ve been honing with the Afghan players to a new country and culture.

I’ll be working with two newly formed women’s teams here – the first wheelchair basketball teams in the country, male or female – that are being organized and run by a partner organization to the ICRC that has previously established a successful disabled volleyball league. It’s going to be a lot of fun starting from scratch again and I have no doubt it will bring me back to my first days working with the team from Maimana in the fall of 2009. One of the teams, based in Battambang, has had some training from an Australian player already, so I’m curious to see how far along they are.

During the two weeks I’ll be spending here, I’ll be moving around the country a bit. Today, my ICRC colleague, Didier Cooreman, and I will drive about five hours from Phnom Penh to Battambang, where we’ll stay for the next five days. Both women’s teams will join us in Battambang for two-a-day training sessions (plus classroom sessions for those appointed to double as coaches and referees).

On the 26th, we’ll return to Phnom Penh while the players take the day to vote in the big national election for Prime Minister. The current PM, who has been in power for 28 years, is being challenged by a man who was imprisoned for 11 years (many postulate for political reasons) and has spent the last four years in exile. He returned to Cambodia for the first time on Friday and drew a massive throng of supporters in a parade through Phnom Penh. I really know how to time these first coaching visits – my first trip to Afghanistan was during that country’s last presidential election, which was surrounded by public protests, Taliban attacks on election workers and rampant allegations of fraud. From what I’ve gathered since arriving, the process here is expected to be much more peaceful in spite of the politically passionate citizenry.

Following the election, Didier and I will go to Kampong Speu, a small town about an hour from Phnom Penh, where the second – and newer – team is based, so I can spend a few days giving them additional instruction.

This is going to be a whirlwind trip – I’m used to spending two months at a time in Afghanistan, so two weeks is going to fly by. That said, I’ll do my best to capture the highlights of experiencing this beautiful country and getting to know its people for the first time.

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Phnom Penh (red), Battambang (blue) and Kampong Speu (light green) are the locations I’ll visit during my stay

As a sidenote, I got a quick impression of how different Cambodian culture is from that of Afghanistan when I pulled up to my hotel last night and had one of my colleagues point out a drag queen karaoke bar two doors down the block with disco blaring out its open-to-the-street facade. Welcome to Cambodia!