Hello from Battambang, Cambodia! It’s been just about five months since I returned from my first trip to coach the two women’s teams here, and I just arrived on January 3rd for my second round. Over the past few months, as mentioned in my previous post, I had a month-long scheduled trip to Afghanistan canceled due to security concerns. A few other international coaching opportunities in the fall didn’t come through either, so I’m just now getting back out with players for the first time since late July. It’s been a fantastic first couple days and I’ve been completely blown away by all the positive changes the players have made, both in terms of basketball skills and in their everyday lives.

Since my last visit, several of the players have gone out and gotten jobs or gone back to school to get degrees, while a few others have found husbands and gotten pregnant. This last bit may sound a bit odd as an accomplishment to Western ears, but given how disabled people are traditionally viewed here, it’s a huge step forward in their integration into society. All the women showed up to the first practice in full makeup, with many wearing earrings and necklaces as well. It’s humorous, of course, but it also shows that they’re each taking a great deal more pride in their public image. They’ve stopped thinking of themselves as members of a marginalized disabled community and have started seeing themselves as women. It’s an amazing transformation.

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Reuniting with the Battambang players

Beyond the physical transformations many of the players here have made, several have also made incredible mental and emotional strides. One of the Battambang players, Sinuon, was born with severe cerebral palsy. When I first met her, she didn’t speak and rarely made eye contact, but tried her best to keep up with the rest of the group during practices despite having severe muscular and cognitive limitations. Apparently, when she first joined the Battambang team a few months before my first visit, she would just sit in one corner of the court looking at the ground and not interacting at all. She’s had one of the most difficult first 20 years of life I can imagine, but she’s transcended it to the point that she’s new laughing and smiling during practices, joking with her teammates, and exhibiting much more physical mobility than any of her physical therapists thought she would ever be capable of. Hers is probably the most obvious of the stories of player growth, but there are many others of varying degrees that have been wonderful to see.

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Sinoun

In my summary post following my trip here in the summer, I mentioned that the next goal for the Cambodian program was to take a national team to the Southeast Asian Para Championships in Myanmar this month. Unfortunately, we learned in October that not enough participating nations were going to field women’s wheelchair basketball teams to include a tournament field. Since learning that, we’ve reset our sites on an even bigger stage – the Asian Para Championships in Korea. This is the second largest disability sports event to the Paralympics and will be an unbelievable test, but certainly an unforgettable experience, for the Cambodian players. At the conclusion of this week’s training camp, I’ll name the 10-12 person national team, which will stay in Battambang for four more days of intensive work. The two provincial teams – Battambang and Kampong Speu – I’m training through Friday of this week are picking things up very quickly, so coaching the national team made up of the best of those two teams should be a lot of fun.