Olympian Hem Thonponloeu has no regrets in quitting competitive swimming to take the mantle as a national coach.
The 31-year-old, who had represented Cambodia at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2012, London Games, has been helping nurture a new generation of swimmers since 2019.
He had his baptism as a coach in an international competition when, for the first time since competing at the 2007 Bangkok SEA Games, he was appointed as coach for the Manila SEA Games in 2019.
“I am much more happier as a coach,” said Thonponloeu, who was the national 50m and 100m breaststroke champion from 2005-2017.
He added that while his tenure as a coach has been short and that he needed more experience to excel in guiding his charges.
He believes that his experience as a former swimmer and a qualified sports instructor has equipped with the basic needs to be a better coach.
Swimming is second nature for Thonponloeu as he comes from a family of accomplished swimmers. His fater Hem Than was a former national back-stroker while siblings Hem LonPhat, Hem Kivy and Hem Ransmey – were all also former national swimmers.
“But being a swimmer and a coach is completely different. The pressures are different. As a swimmer, we only think about training hard and winning. But as a coach we also have think about the athlete – the mental condition, diet, training and so many other things,” said Thonponloeu.
No Cambodian swimmer has won a medal at the SEA Games since 2007 but all that could change in 2023.
While Thonponloeu hopes for one of his local charges to deliver the long sought after medal, Cambodia’s best bet could come from their US-based swimmer Matthew Bennici.
“We have a much better system now and have more promising swimmers in the national squad now. We also have a better talent identification in place and coaches to do it,” said Thonponloeu.
He added that while in many countries swimming is seen as an elite sports for the rich, it was not the case with Cambodia.
“It is not necessary that you need to be rich to take up swimming. In Kampong Cham for instance, there are many talented swimmers, who have taken up the sport by swimming in the river. These talents, predominantly from Kampong Cham, Battambong and Phnom Penh are being scouted by our team of coaches,” said Thonponloeu, who was the national 50m and 100m breaststroke champion from 2008 until his retirement from competitive swimming.
After representing the kingdom at both the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, Thonponloeu returned to the Olympics as a coach last year in Tokyo.
“My best memory of the sport must still be the Beijing Olympics. Though I did not win anything, it was such an excitement in being able to represent Cambodia at the biggest event in sports,”said Thonponloeu, who hails from Phnom Penh.
He also hopes that more youngsters would take up swimming.
“They can do well if they put serious effort in training and always remember that they are not only swimming for their own self but also for the reputation of the country. It is not just an opportunity to have fun,” said Thonponloeu.