Everyone in Phnom Penh seems to want to take a selfie these days with Bou Samnang, the Cambodian middle-distance runner who became the star of the Southeast Asian Games thanks to her perseverance in the 5,000m last Monday.
Although she came in last, her determination to finish the race in torrential rain wowed the country and even earned her congratulations from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Videos showing her crying after crossing the finish line have made the rounds on social media.
“I can say that now I’m famous,” the 20-year-old told AFP at the Morodok Techo stadium, the scene of her improbable rise, where passers-by lined up to take pictures with her.
“Although I lost, they support me from the bottom of their hearts,” she says.
This week’s race was not the first in which Bou Samnang has had to show determination, but it marks the final leg of a journey fraught with health concerns that started on rudimentary dirt tracks.
“I knew I was losing. The rain was so heavy,” said the athlete from Phnom Penh, whose mother is a housewife and whose father died in an accident a few years ago.
“I had the right to quit the race, but first I have a duty to represent Cambodia. So I didn’t quit.”
As a symbol of her beginnings as a runner at school, in the suburbs of the capital, where the facilities were spartan.
“We lacked everything to train,” she recalls. “I only had a pair of shoes and almost no sports shirts. We trained on normal surfaces, like flat concrete, or sometimes just on dirt floors. She joined the national program of athletics in 2016 and began to enjoy better support, before joining the main team five years later.
Bou Samnang has spent much of 2022 in China training for his country’s first Southeast Asian Games.
But the one who has been battling anemia for a long time, causing a lack of red blood cells in her blood, felt weak on race day after having already given up on competing in the 1500m.
“My trainer told me that because of my state of health, I should not do it. But for the nation, I am committed”, she assures.
The race was won by Vietnamese Thi Oanh Nguyen in just 17 minutes, and five minutes later, while the elements had meanwhile been unleashed, Bou Samnang was still on the track.
“I tried to reach the finish line because I wanted to show people that in life, even if we go a little slow or fast, we still reach our destination,” she says.
The Cambodian, soaked by the rain, finally finished her race in 22 minutes and 54 seconds.
Touched by his courage, many officials and organizations offered Bou Samnang cash bonuses, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said he gave him a $10,000 (9,200 euros) reward “to encourage him to persevere”. .
“I will use the money to support my family,” she announces, adding that she would like to pay off her mother’s debts and finance her own studies.
Bou Samnang plans to enroll in university this year, majoring in computer science and law, while pursuing his career as an athlete, with his sights set on the upcoming Southeast Asian Games in Thailand.
“I will do my best in the future to obtain the reward for my nation and my supporters,” she promises.