2015 ASEAN PARA GAMES: DAY 5

Asean Para Games: Running with her head held high

Cambodian Thin Seng Hon during the 100m T43/44 yesterday, in which she finished fourth. On Friday, she won a silver medal in the 200m.
Cambodian Thin Seng Hon during the 100m T43/44 yesterday, in which she finished fourth. On Friday, she won a silver medal in the 200m. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Teased as a child, Cambodia's Paralympic sprinter Thin is now the toast of her nation

It was not so much the 4km journey on crutches that made Thin Seng Hon's daily commute to school a living nightmare.

Born with an incomplete right leg - which ends below her knee - and a set of deformed fingers, she was used to living with her disability, even if that meant hobbling on her crutches for more than an hour just to get to classes every morning.

But what she could never get used to was the incessant taunting by other kids in Kampong Cham, Cambodia. It was so bad that going to school felt like a walk of shame.

"People would always say that I am a strange person," recounted Thin. "In school, I would go and join a group but they would tell me to go away. I have cried many times.

LIFE IN THE SHADOWS

I jumped around because I had only one leg. They looked down on me because I was the only person in the whole village with a disability.

THIN SENG HON, explaining how difficult it was to find a friend during her childhood

"I jumped around because I had only one leg. They looked down on me because I was the only person in the whole village with a disability."

When she was eight, the seventh of eight children of rice farmers got her first prosthetic leg. Yet, she still could not find a friend.

Shunned, it would take a decade of life in the shadows before things started to brighten up.

At 18, she joined a free English class for disabled people after she heard of it through a radio broadcast. It was there that she finally made friends, one of whom told her of a Japanese company in Phnom Penh which was conducting sewing classes for disabled people.

Determined to prove to those in her village that she could stand up on her own and make something of herself, she packed her belongings and moved 100km to the capital, where she went to work in a souvenir shop selling handmade silkcraft items. She earned about US$20-80 (S$30-120) a month, but still she struggled financially.

"My family, no matter how poor they were, they would go around selling what they had to help me."

Then came the life-changer in 2005. An athletics coach put up an advertisement in front of her workplace asking for disabled athletes to sign up for a local meet.

"He asked me if I was interested in sport but I said no," said the para sprinter. "I had never tried running. But he persuaded me to try."

To her surprise, she topped the 100m trial race and was drafted into the national track and field team, training once a week, increasing to twice a day, six times a week before competitions.

Thin took part in her first Asean Para Games that year, but did not win a medal. Discouraged because she did not have a running blade, she left the sport in 2006.

But a gift of running blades in 2010 encouraged her to return to the track, starting with the 2010 Asian Para Games in Guangzhou.

It was the same blade she wore for her 100m T43/44 yesterday, where she took the lead in the first 40m but finished a disappointing fourth out of five runners.

Looking at a video recording of the race on a team-mate's phone and using her hands to cover her face, she lamented that her blade was obsolete. "I felt like I was about to fall. The other (non-Cambodian) three runners had better sprinting blades. Mine is more for longer distances like marathons."

It speaks volumes that Thin, who won a silver medal in the 200m event last Friday to add to a 400m gold in 2011, is aiming higher.

The 32-year-old, who was her nation's only representative at the 2012 London Paralympics, is determined to bring more honour to her country - even if she is now no longer living in Cambodia. Married to an Australian she met in 2011, Thin, who also goes by Mrs Anny Collins these days, calls Melbourne home.

Currently working at an orchid nursery, the Australian permanent resident fetches a monthly salary of about A$3,000 (S$3,007) - which has helped improve the lives of her family in Cambodia.

She knows that in order to improve her running, she should invest in new running blades, which cost about US$5,000. But she says family comes first.

Whipping out her iPhone, she revealed two photos, one of her old house on stilts, and another of a US$100,000 house she built in 2014 for her parents.

"I told myself that if I have money one day, I will make sure that my family will live a good life," said Thin, a mini celebrity in Cambodia. "They stood by me and loved me, even though everyone else didn't.

"I never thought my life would turn out like this. I cannot believe how my life has changed after I became a sportswoman.

"The best thing is that nobody looks down on me any more."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2015, with the headline 'RUNNING WITH HER HEAD HELD HIGH'. Print Edition | Subscribe