Four days of two-a-day training sessions with the Kampong Speu and Battambang players are in the books, and yesterday we held a tournament to conclude the week. I split the players into four equal teams composed of players from both provinces and each team played three full length games over the course of a morning and afternoon session. The level of play has come up significantly since my visit in July, with game scores regularly doubling what they were in the previous tournament. The energy level from the players was just as high as ever, with nonstop shrieking from the players on the court and those watching from the sidelines accompanying every play. I was grinning ear-to-ear the entire time.

At the conclusion of the day’s games, the players were completely exhausted – it was 90 with no shade for the afternoon session – but deliriously happy from the experience. It’s always so refreshing for me to experience the excitement of competition with these players (the same goes for those in Afghanistan), and reminds me not to take for granted the fun aspect of sports. After a lifetime of playing sports at various levels of competition, it’s easy for to get jaded and forget how much I love competing alongside a group of teammates, but being with young athletes new to the feeling, it brings back that youthful exuberance every time. 

One highlight of the tournament was the hairstyles the players showed up with for the big day. I’ve never seen so many creative variations of ponytails, pigtails, braids, etc. Couple the hair with the jewelry and makeup, and this was definitely the most fashionable basketball tournament I’ve been a part of.

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Sopeap, Thorn, Kepeak, Chanda and Dayaing bring the style

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Hair in action!

Following the tournament, we announced the selection of the national team that will travel to Seoul, South Korea in October for the Asian Para Games. The players hadn’t talked much about the selection or the games, so I didn’t realize how invested they were in making the team until after I announced the chosen players. Each name was accompanies by jubilant applause and screaming, even for those players who seemed like locks to make the team.

After I read the final name, though, the proceedings took on a much more somber tone, as the faces of several players who didn’t make the cut dissolved into tears of disappointment while their teammates tried to console them. One of the best players not to make the squad was dealing with such a combination of shock, anxiety and exhaustion that she ended up being admitted to the hospital overnight. She was released this morning and is feeling much better, but – just as the players’ infectious excitement captured me during the games – her inconsolable grief upon not achieving an athletic goal for the first time hit me really hard. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried out for a team and felt the sting of not making it, but I remember the feeling very well. I found out later from my assistant coach and interpreter, Anya, that one major reason the players were upset about not making the team was that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to fly on an airplane for the first time when the team goes to Korea. My god. This work never ceases to keep me humble and grounded.

For all the challenges of dealing with the disappointment of a few, there were twelve amazing stories of success for the players who did make the national squad. The one I’m most proud of is Seila, a class 1 player from Kampong Speu. Seila is one of several Kampong Speu players who, as the result of cerebral palsy, is only able to use one arm. She has become so good with that one arm, though, that she is able to execute every skill the two armed players have learned – all while using that same arm to maneuver and stop her chair. She has one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it lit up the world when she heard her name announced for making the national team.

This morning, in the first national team training session, I taught the group how to execute a bounce stop. The bounce stop is a fairly complex technique used to stop the wheelchair while controlling the ball – difficult for even highly mobile players to master at first. Check out this video of Seila doing it correctly with one arm within minutes of learning it!