As Chim Phan gracefully leaps for the ball on the dusty Cambodian volleyball court, it's hard to believe the star athlete is missing his lower leg -- until you notice his tell-tale prosthetic limb.
He and his team-mates are the impoverished country's only world-ranking sports team, the top disabled volleyballers in the Asia-Pacific region and third-best in the world after Germany and Slovakia.
Advertisement"We want to get to number one," Chim Phan said after a tough training session ahead of the 2009 World Cup tournament, which begins on Monday in Phnom Penh with six nations battling for the championship.
"Now our disabled sport is well known, not only throughout Cambodia but also overseas. People were surprised that disabled people can play sport.... Now they recognise it and they're very interested."
The 38-year-old's missing leg is a grim reminder of his country's three decades of bloody civil conflict and the 1970s genocide by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
In common with around 40,000 Cambodians, his life was devastated 12 years ago by one of the millions of landmines that still litter the countryside despite intensive demining efforts since the early 1990s.
"In the past I felt sorry for myself after I stepped on a landmine. But now I think I have the same ability as other people because I can work and I can play sport," he said.
The father-of-three, who makes wheelchairs for a living, has applied his steely determination to becoming a medal-winning runner as well as one of the best players in the Cambodian National Volleyball League (Disabled).
The league, made up of ten provincial teams, was set up in 2003 to "raise awareness about disability issues and the landmine issues," said its Australian founder and secretary general, Chris Minko.
"I have always believed in the unique power of sports... to foster civil society and reconciliation, particularly in a nation like Cambodia recovering from 30 years of civil war and genocide," he said.
A minority of the league's 150 players are survivors of polio or traffic accidents, but around 70 percent are landmine victims. Others were caught in crossfire as children, or were directly involved in fighting themselves.
The national team captain, Chhim Chandy, lost his arm in 1987 when he was a government soldier fighting the communist Khmer Rouge, which remained an insurgent force until the late 1990s following its 1979 ouster from power.
But since joining the league, he has played on the same side as former enemies, and believes the sport "brings solidarity".
"Before we misunderstood each other because of different political views. But nowadays we are the same Cambodians -- we have a mutual understanding. Now we are like brothers," he said.
Keen to finally move on from its dark past, Cambodia is "very, very proud" to be hosting the upcoming World Cup at its National Olympic Stadium, welcoming teams from Germany, India, Malaysia, Poland and Slovakia, Minko said.
"You now see Cambodia out there on the international sporting stage with all the other nations, and that's a fantastic step forward when you see that they were an isolated nation on their own only a short time ago," he said.
When Phnom Penh held the same competition in 2007 it was the city's first world sporting event in over four decades and the home team were pleased to finish third. But this time they are determined to clinch the trophy.
"This is the big one. I believe we've got a dream team in place," said Minko.
"What's beautiful to see at the moment is a growing national pride and excitement. The whole nation's swinging behind the athletes with a disability and going: let's go for number one."
Victory for the team is not just a matter of recognition.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised each player 10,000 dollars if they make it to number one -- a life-changing sum in a country where nearly a third of the population survive on just 50 cents a day or less.
It's a major incentive for the players, who have been training intensively for several hours a day under the supervision of their confident German coach, Christian Zepp.
"There might be some people that might say it's impossible for the Cambodian team to win against especially Germany, but I say let's do it. Let's do the impossible," said Zepp with a grin.
You May Also Like