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