KUALA LUMPUR • The first thing that Cambodian figure skaters Sen Bunthoeurn Sen and Panha Khiev noticed when they arrived at the Empire City Mall to compete in the SEA Games was the sheer scale of the Olympic-size ice rink.
It was almost three times as big as Ice Park, the only public skating rink in Phnom Penh where they train. The next thing the pair - their country's only winter sports athletes here - did was to bend down and feel the cold surface.
"It's so smooth compared to ours which is bumpy," said the 27-year-old Bunthoeurn with a laugh, despite falling twice and finishing eighth in the men's singles yesterday.
His total score of 36.23 was 169.2 points fewer than gold medallist Julian Yee (205.43) of Malaysia. Team-mate Panha was last in the nine-man field with his 32.41 score.
Adjusting to the bigger rink was tough, as Bunthoeurn noted: "During training, I would take five steps and I'll be at the corner of the rink.
"But here I'm so far away and I need to perform my next move. So I struggled with my balance and body position and that's why I slipped twice today."
Neither Cambodian was remotely dismayed though. They are making their international debuts even though they each have fewer than five years of experience.
In search of a job in 2013, Bunthoeurn chanced upon an opening for a skating instructor in the shopping mall where Ice Park was going to be opened. The only problem was, he did not know how to skate.
"The boss had brought in a Filipino coach and he taught us how to skate in ice hockey skates," he recalled. "I fell down a lot on my first day and had bruises all over. But after the second day I could move up and down a bit."
He is still an instructor at Ice Park, which is where he trains six times a week - usually dodging recreational skaters - and where he met Panha. Panha became his unofficial student.
The 23-year-old said: "I watch a lot of skating videos on YouTube and try to follow what they do during practice, but it's not easy."
Picking up this sport as an adult and hoping to be competitive was always going to be a huge task, said Cambodia's British national coach Clair Ben Zina.
Appointed five months ago, she added: "Their technique is quite poor, so is their raw speed, which makes it hard to perform jumps. But we're starting something from scratch, so it takes time."
She is also working with a youth team of about 25 skaters aged seven to 10, and said the Cambodia Ice Skating Federation has started a learn-to-skate programme that has about 150 participants.
There is no shame in falling, stressed Panha.
"We know we were never going to win medals but the experience of competing against top skaters was very good for us," he said. "We want to improve and be role models for young Cambodians who want to skate."