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Storied martial artist seeks glory at home games

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Pal Chhor Raksmey (left) in action during the 31st SEA Games in Vietnam in May. SUPPLIED

Storied martial artist seeks glory at home games

Pal Chhor Raksmey, an outstanding Cambodian women’s martial arts competitor with experience in Judo, Taekwondo and Vovinam, has built a big reputation at home while competing on the international stage where she has won a total of 23 gold, silver and bronze medals from several international competitions, including the World Championships and the SEA Games.

Chhor Raksmey, 36, has been focusing on training hard and improving her skills in the hopes that she can pull off winning the gold medal one last time as Cambodia hosts the 32nd Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in 2023, and she’ll be on home turf and a favourite in her events.

“Ever since I started playing sports and practicing martial arts, I never thought that Cambodia would get to host the SEA Games. When [Prime Minister Hun Sen] announced we would be hosting the games, I felt so excited. It will be a special time for those of us lucky enough to be on the national team and we will all be determined to use every last bit of energy we have trying to win medals for the pride of our country,” she said.

“My goal is that I will retire in 2023 as I am getting old. The reason that I stay until 2023 is because Cambodia will be the host of the games, so I have to join to win gold medal for our country for the last time in this sport,” added the athlete, who is a native of Phnom Penh.

As the youngest daughter in a family of six, Chhor Raksmey was encouraged by her parents and siblings to train when she began back in 1996 with the Olympic Judo Club.

However, after experiencing having her elbow broken twice, she was ready to call it quits. But instead of leaving martial arts, she ended up shifting her focus to Taekwondo under the rules of the International Taekwan-Do Federation (ITF) in 1997.

Chhor Raksmey said she enjoyed the time she spent in North Korea training and that she wasn’t afraid of the country’s fearsome reputation because her brother Pal Chivorn was training there already and he told her all about what to expect before she arrived.

Under the guidance of her brother, she developed her skills rapidly despite having switched to competing in a very different martial art from before. So rapidly, in fact, she was selected to the national team in 2004, following in her brother’s footsteps.

“There were no real obstacles to training because my parents fully support me, even though I am a daughter. They asked me to promise that if I joined the training I would take it seriously and do it over the long-term and not treat it like a fad. That is why, although I broke my arm, injured my leg and am physically exhausted, I still struggle with the idea of retirement because I love this sport.

“At first I loved Judo, but in one year I broke my elbow twice, so I was scared. I came to watch my brother, Pal Chivorn, train regularly for ITF. I started to love that sport and my mother also agreed as it seemed less likely to end with a broken elbow again,” she added.

During her more than 10 years of ITF training, Chhor Raksmey has won all kinds of medals at international competitions, including a number of gold. She also won silver competing abroad twice at the International Martial Arts Championships in North Korea in 2004 and 2006.

At the 2016 ASEAN ITF Championships, which were hosted by Cambodia, she won three gold medals to thrill the spectators on hand and spread her fame to new fans in every corner of the Kingdom.

Chhor Raksmey missed her earliest medalling chances due to a busy schedule studying for the high school, or Grade 12, examination, not competing with the national team for the ITF championships in 2008.

Then in 2009 she got married to Leng Vanda and they eventually had a son who today is six years old and has just entered the first grade. In addition to all that, she also earned her Bachelor’s degree in banking and finance from Build Bright University.

With married life and other obligations pulling her away from sport for a couple of years, Chhor Raksmey was eager to get back in the ring for 2011 and she was encouraged to try the Vietnamese martial art of Vovinam by Rat Sokhorn, who is currently the president of the Vovinam Federation of Cambodia.

“I had health problems like typhoid fever and training with a Korean teacher was exhausting while also studying at the same time for the Grade 12 exam. That’s why I decided to quit Taekwondo. And then when I worked for Rat Sokhorn, the wealthy businessman and martial arts enthusiast, he encouraged me to try out Vovinam and I’ve been training in it from 2011 until now,” she said.

Chhorn Raksmey has competed in three Vovinam world championships. Her first was in 2011 in Vietnam, where she won three silver medals. The second was in India in 2017, where she won two gold medals and two silver medals. And then she won three gold, one silver and three bronze medals at the 2019 Vovinam World Championships hosted by Cambodia.

She has competed at the SEA Games on three occasions and won gold medals every time, including the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia, where she won one gold and three silver medals. Then she won one gold and one bronze medals at the 2013 event in Myanmar; and one gold and one bronze medals at the pandemic-postponed 2021 SEA Games, which were eventually held in Hanoi in May of 2022.

Chhor Raksmey also competed in two Asian Championships and four ASEAN Championships, and in other international competitions, has so far, won a total of 23 gold, 20 silver and 13 bronze medals.

For the training run-up to this year’s crucial SEA Games hosted by Cambodia, she said she is totally focused on winning medals and making it the pinnacle of her martial arts career.

“Participating in the SEA Games for the first time in 2011, I thought it was a big deal and too grand of an event for me. Because at that time I was scared, too, and I just didn’t know about my actual level of competency. Until I won my first gold medal! Which I myself could hardly believe at the time, what I’d done. I was so excited, I almost cried when I saw them raise the Cambodian flag up a little higher than the rest,” she recalled to The Post.

She has been working hard to achieve the all-important goal of winning a gold medal at the 2023 SEA Games, because of its historic importance as the first time ever that Cambodia has played host to the event.

“When I first got into sports, I had no idea what the national team was or how they determined the match results or anything.

“Now, after experiencing all of it many times, I’ve realized that no matter which event it is – if you compete, then you must know – now it is your time to bring honour to the nation. And it will be an even greater honour while Cambodia plays host.

“Sports represent peace, unity and brotherhood. If our nation wasn’t at peace, it would not be able to host the SEA Games. I must win a gold medal at the SEA Games in our home country, there is no greater task for me. I think it’s a matter of pride. That’s why I’ve trained so hard for this one last opportunity,” she said.

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