Asean Schools Games 2017

Asean Schools Games: Laos swimmers build on their Olympic experience

Laos' Siri Arun Budcharern and Santisouk Inthavong aspire to become better swimmers after receiving wild-card entries to compete at last year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Laos' Siri Arun Budcharern and Santisouk Inthavong aspire to become better swimmers after receiving wild-card entries to compete at last year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

A father's wish for his seven-year-old daughter to be trim and healthy eventually led Siri Arun Budcharern to the Olympic Games.

The 15-year-old, who is in town for the Asean Schools Games, is one of two Laotian swimmers who received wild-card entries to the Rio de Janeiro Games last year.

She said: "I was fat and my dad wanted me to be healthy, so he took me to the swimming pool.

"I saw our national team training there and I wanted to be like them because they were so good at swimming, so I learnt. They let me join the team, and I continued till now."

And she intends to keep going, despite the obstacles she and her team-mates face, such as a lack of training facilities and expertise.

Siri Arun practises in a 25m pool - half the length of an Olympic pool - that is frequently occupied by public users at the same time.

Land-locked Laos' only Olympic-sized pool, used during the 2009 SEA Games, is too far for swimmers to use regularly, said national swim coach Soulamphone Kerdla, who is here to guide her charges during the week-long ASG.

LEARNING FROM SCHOOLING

He is the same as us and he can beat an Olympian like Michael Phelps. It was cool.

SANTISOUK INTHAVONG, Laos swimmer and Olympian, on why Singapore's Joseph Schooling is his idol. He was in the stands when Schooling won Olympic gold.

The other Laotian swimmer who went to Rio last year - Santisouk Inthavong, 17 - is also here for the ASG. He swam the boys' 50m backstroke and 50m freestyle, while Siri Arun competed in the girls' 50m free and 50m breaststroke at the Singapore Sports School.

Neither advanced to the finals of their respective events.

But having raced alongside some of the world's fastest swimmers on sport's grandest stage, the duo are hungry for more.

Vietnam-based Santisouk, whose 26.54sec in the 50m free heats in Rio is Laos' national record, has dreams of becoming an Olympic champion, but admitted: "I need more practice. I need to train harder and focus on streamlining."

Siri Arun, a student at Laos' Kiettisack International School, hopes to one day bring a medal home. She added: "Any medal will do - even an ASG medal would be enough."

Following their appearance in Rio, she and Santisouk believe public interest in their sport will rise slowly in Laos, where football and combat sports are more popular.

"I hope I can inspire more kids in Laos and make them want to swim," added Santisouk, whose older brother Pathana swam at the 2012 London Olympics.

Siri Arun, who continues to train at the Vientiane Swimming Pool where lanes are often occupied by children taking lessons, added: "I see that there are more children coming to learn swimming and I don't know if they are learning to join the national team or for survival, but it's a good sign."

In Rio, she posted 32.55sec in the 50m free and did not progress beyond the heats.

But she and Santisouk left Brazil inspired by Joseph Schooling, whose race they watched live as the Singaporean beat American legend Michael Phelps to win 100m butterfly gold.

Both named Schooling as one of their idols, with Santisouk saying: "He is the same as us and he can beat an Olympian like Michael Phelps. It was cool."

Siri Arun, who took a photo with Schooling, added: "I saw the photo (Schooling) took with Michael Phelps when he was small, and now he beat Phelps, his idol.

"He's my inspiration."

For Laos, which has not reached a SEA Games swimming final since 2009, to achieve a podium finish at the Olympics is tough, said Soulamphone, but she remains optimistic.

There are plans to hire a Japanese coach to boost the national set-up.

She added: "At the swimming pool, the parents are now asking so many questions like how their kids can get into the national team and how to train.

"These kids will form the next generation of swimmers."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2017, with the headline 'Laos swimmers build on their Olympic experience'. Print Edition | Subscribe