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Bou Samnang lost race at Southeast Asian Games, but won accolades

Runner number 401 had died of fatigue and suffered from low blood pressure. She was also last by a wide margin in the 5,000 meters and walked alone, through a noisy rainstorm, around the track of a nearly empty stadium.

Bou Samnang, 20, still finished the race.

His performance in the rain at the Southeast Asian Games – this year’s edition was hosted this month by his home country Cambodia – would have been a footnote in an unknown tournament of most sports fans outside the region. But when the video of her circulated widely on social media, she became an unlikely national celebrity.

“I knew I wasn’t going to win, but I told myself not to stop,” she said in an interview.

As she struggled, it helped that a small group of supporters were cheering furiously, she added, and she felt compelled to finish because she was representing her country.

Ms Bou Samnang, who graduated from high school last year, did not expect to attract international attention when she arrived on May 8 for the 5,000 meters final in the capital and city of Phnom Penh. native. She was grateful to be in competition.

A few weeks earlier, Ms Bou Samnang had suffered a particularly severe episode of low blood pressure, the result of her chronic anemia, while training in the city of Kunming in southwestern China. A doctor told him to stop running for a while, and his trainer, Kieng Samorn, did not insist otherwise.

“She has a health problem,” Mr. Kieng Samorn said. “We can’t force her.

But Ms Bou Samnang said she was looking forward to racing at the Southeast Asian Games, her first international competition, and her coach did not object to her.

In the women’s 5,000 meters final, held in a sparsely-attended 60,000-seat stadium, Ms. Bou Samnang found herself on the start line alongside some of the region’s top runners. The eventual winner, Nguyen Thi Oanh of Vietnam, is an Olympian who had won several gold medals at previous Southeast Asian Games.

After the starting gun sounded and the riders formed up, Ms. Bou Samnang took up position towards the back of the peloton. Within about a minute, she had fallen so far behind that she was not visible in much of the television coverage.

But she kept going, even when Ms. Oanh and other runners finished, the sky opened up and some fans lost interest.

Ms Bou Samnang would finish in 22 minutes and 54 seconds – almost six minutes behind Ms Oanh of Vietnam and around 90 seconds behind fellow countrywoman Run Romdul. By then, the stadium’s floodlights had been turned off, water was pooling on the track, and his pink shoes and red uniform were completely soaked.

His performance was reminiscent of other runners who persevered, including a few who won track events after falling. One is Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands, who did it in the 1,500 meter event at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago.

Runners don’t tend to get much praise if they lose by a wide margin. One exception is long-distance events, where it’s common to celebrate the last to finish, said Steve Brammar, general secretary of the Hong Kong Trail Runners Association. An ultramarathon trail race he runs there has an “Ultimate Finisher” trophy for that purpose.

“Ms Bou Samnang’s perseverance was inspiring and truly seems to have warmed hearts and captured the imagination,” Mr Brammar said in an email.

After finishing last in the 5,000 meter race this month, Ms Bou Samnang’s health prevented her from running the 1,500 meter event as planned, her coach said. But after a video of her determined performance leaked online, she received praise from the King of Cambodia and a $10,000 bonus from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, which is equivalent to several years of average earnings. for a Cambodian.

Ms. Bou Samnang, whose father died in 2018, is the third of four children. She said she would use the bounty to study law at a Cambodian university and planned to continue racing competitively.

Her mother, Mai Met, said she cried after learning her daughter had finished last in the 5,000 metres. But that sadness was tempered by the outpouring of public support that came later.

“I’m delighted,” said Ms Mai Met, 44, who has long supported the family by working in garment factories.

His determined finish exemplified an “ideal of sport”, said Edgar K. Tham, a sports psychologist in Singapore who works with athletes in Southeast Asia.

He said the attention Ms Bou Samnang has received is remarkable in part because Cambodian athletes tend to do better in combat sports than in track events in regional competitions.

But the example she set, he added, will resonate far beyond Southeast Asia.

“That’s life: moving on and using failures as lessons to bounce back,” he said. “If you take it in that spirit, it’s something inspiring.”

nytimes Gt

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