The Cambodia Wheelchair Basketball Federation (CWBF) is extensively preparing for the 2023 Asean Para Games, the biggest Paralympic event that will be hosted by Cambodia.
The Para Games will be held after the 2023 Southeast Asian Games that Cambodia is also hosting.
In an interview, Muy Seu Bel, Secretary-General of CWBF, said their players are currently training very hard in anticipation of the upcoming event.
The training is being held on weekdays at the ICF Campus in Siem Reap. “In the future, we want to have our own place where we can train seven days a week,” the CWBF official said.
In addition to the on-site scrimmages, the players also train via Zoom under the guidance of Canadian coach Joe Higgins. The Vancouver, British Columbia native, who has more than 35 years of coaching experience, was hired by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to help train the wheelchair ballers from Cambodia.
The choice of Higgins to lead the team is good choice, considering his experience and the fact that Canada is one of the global powerhouses in wheelchair basketball.
The Zoom trainings became a staple after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the past, Jess Markt, a sport and inclusion adviser with ICRC, helped improve the passing, shooting and on-court communication between the players.
At present, there are nearly 100 wheelchair basketball players in Cambodia. Fifty-one players are women, while the rest are men.
“They train very hard and they are getting better day after day,” Bel pointed out.
Marc Zlot, Physical Rehab Programme Manager at ICRC, said there are currently 14 players (10 female and 4 male) from Kampong Speu and another 31 ballers (20 female and 11 male) from Battambang. The rest are mostly from Siem Reap.
“We are very happy to be part of the development of wheelchair basketball in Cambodia,” Zlot stressed.
The ICRC is one of the organisations that is helping promote and develop wheelchair basketball in Cambodia. Support has also come from other organisations like the German Embassy in Cambodia and The Underground Academy, a company focused on developing technologies and programmes for sports, personal, and community development.
“Wheelchair Basketball is so much more than a sport. It’s a catalyst that can help destigmatise persons with disabilities. Many of the athletes participating in Wheelchair Basketball come from a diverse set of backgrounds with a different set of challenges unique to each athlete. Working together with passionate organisations that have similar goals in mind has been a blessing not only to the Wheelchair Basketball Community but to the Kingdom of Cambodia,” Michael Tuon, Founder of Upward MVP & The Underground Academy, said.
“That’s what makes this programme so unique, basketball itself is a language and being able to communicate and create something special with these incredible athletes has been a privilege. I hope that we’re able to grow together and see Cambodia’s Wheelchair Basketball athletes on the world stage,” he added.
The best players that will emerge from the trainings and tryouts will be chosen for the national team, according to Bel.
“Probably by November, we will have the male and female teams for the 2023 ASEAN Para Games,” he said.
Wheelchair basketball was introduced to Cambodia by ICRC in 2012. The sport has steadily gained acceptance in a country where there are thousands of landmine victims.
According to the ICRC, there are more than 150,000 Cambodians with some sort of disability. Many of them were victims of the millions of landmines sown across the Kingdom by warring groups during decades of conflict.
Bel, who is landmine survivor himself, has been at the forefront of the effort to develop wheelchair basketball in Cambodia.
A native of Angkor Chum district, 50 kilometres away from Siem Reap proper, Bel was just seven-years-old when he lost a leg to a landmine explosion. The resulting disability did not deter him as he pursued higher education and completed two degrees, including a degree in Economics at the University of Southeast Asia in Siem Reap.
In 2009, Bel launched his own NGO called Khmer Independent Life Team or KILT.
Bel started playing wheelchair basketball in 2017. He has since represented Cambodia in many wheelchair basketball competitions abroad.
“I was afraid to try at first,” he recounted.
Bel sees Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia as their strongest opponents. “Those countries have good and strong wheelchair basketball teams,” he pointed out.
Bel is optimistic of Cambodia’s potential and future in wheelchair basketball.
Despite being new to the scene, Cambodia has racked up several impressive wins on the international stage. Cambodia was part of many competitions abroad, including the Bali Cup in Indonesia.
During the regional Paralympic qualifiers in Thailand three years ago, the Cambodian female team scored a surprising 38-32 win over Afghanistan.
— by Jose Rodriguez T. Senase for Khmer Times