From Farm Boy to SEA Games’ Gold Medalist

Despite Chhun Bunthorn dropping out of school several times as a youngster, the sprinter’s hard work has paid off in sports after he won Cambodia a gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 32nd SEA Games
Chhun Bunthorn
Chhun Bunthorn

When Chhun Bunthorn worked as a farm boy in Prey Veng, being a SEA Games’ gold medallist and sprinter on the national team was nothing but a distant dream. However, he recently clinched his first gold medal in the 800-meter race at the 32nd SEA Games at Morodok Techo Stadium.

Bunthorn was born in Sre Muk commune, Kanchriech district, Prey Veng province. He lives alone after his mother passed away in 2010 and his father died two years later. He has six siblings, and is the fifth child in the family. However, after their parents' death, they lived separately and faced their own struggles to make a living.

"Life alone and struggling without your parents' support can be a very challenging and difficult experience. When someone is faced with the task of navigating the world without the guidance and support from parents, I feel lost, overwhelmed, and unsure of how to proceed," the SEA Games gold medalist told Kiripost recently.

"I live alone in Phnom Penh, struggling without my parents' support, and had to take on a lot of responsibility at a young age. I had to work to support myself, pay bills, and manage my finances, all while trying to navigate the challenges of daily life. This can be a daunting task, and it can be easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged," he added.

"One of the biggest challenges of life alone and struggling without your parents' support is the lack of emotional support and guidance. Parents are often a source of comfort and advice, and when they are not present, it can be difficult to know who to turn to for help. This can lead to feelings of isolation, loneliness, and despair," Bunthorn said.

Struggles at school

As a child, Bunthorn studied at primary school in Kanhchriech district, then went on to Preah Bat Norodom High School. Bunthorn was a student who always struggled in school, and his struggles continued until he reached high school. They had taken a toll on his confidence and motivation, and he felt like he was falling behind his peers and was unsure of his future prospects.

Although Bunthorn faced many challenges in his academic journey, he was able to overcome them. He also developed a sense of resilience and determination, which would serve him well in his future endeavors.

After passing the Baccalaureate exam, Bunthorn came to live in Phnom Penh and entered the Institute of Technology of Cambodia. He received a two-year scholarship but did not graduate from there due to the loss of his father and grandmother. He was very upset at that time and finally decided to drop out of school.

Later, Bunthorn decided to study at the School of Physical Education and Sports (Sports School) from 2014 to 2016. He graduated and then went to work at the National Sports Training Center. While working, Bunthorn saved money to study English and also worked hard to learn computers to strengthen his ability for job opportunities.

Bunthon also studied at Setech School for six months but dropped out again due to his duty to go abroad to compete in sports.

He said that after dropping out of Setech School, he decided to apply to study at Asia Europe University with a bachelor's degree in English. However, he did not study much and dropped out again. He then went on to study at Instinct Institute, learning video recording and editing, among other topics, but Bunthorn did not complete his studies there either.

"I never finished school like everyone else, moving from one school to another," Bunthorn said.

After dropping out again, Bunthorn began training hard during the Covid-19 outbreak. In 2021, he had the opportunity to compete in the 31st SEA Games in Vietnam. However, due to the continued spread of Covid-19, Bunthorn decided to resume his studies at the Department of Media and Communication (DMC).

After studying for two years, he was sent to China for sports training and was forced to suspend his studies.

Life challenges

As the first gold medallist in the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia for the 800-meter hurdles, Bunthorn shared that as a child, he loved running and during high school he also enjoyed playing football. After the loss of his parents and grandmother, Bunthorn felt unhappy and experienced stress and depression due to the pain of losing loved ones.

During this time, Bunthorn began playing sports with unknown individuals and met a friend named Chea Samphos, who encouraged him to run and have a chance to compete and earn money for his education. At that time, Bunthorn had no one to support him and he had to work hard to survive.

After approximately two weeks of running training, Bunthorn participated in the International Half Marathon in Sihanoukville in a 10 km race but failed to achieve good results. However, seeing the winners receive medals and prizes ignited a spark in Bunthorn's heart, motivating him to believe that if he trained as hard as they did, he could have a chance to win and receive rewards to support his education and livelihood.

Bunthorn then dedicated himself to rigorous training and participating in competitions to have a chance to win. His hard work paid off when he achieved satisfactory results and received bonuses to support his livelihood. With each competition, Bunthorn encountered strong opponents, which motivated him to train even harder and learn from his strengths and weaknesses.

Bunthorn started his athletic journey competing in a race in Prey Veng province, running with torn shoes. Although he was not initially involved in running or athletics, the Triathlon Federation selected him to be a national triathlon athlete at the time. His dream was to qualify for the national team and receive a salary.

While Bunthorn was open to any sport, his passion was running. As a national athlete, he trained diligently for four years in swimming, cycling, and running under the guidance of the Triathlon Federation. However, due to nasal allergies to water, he had to stop training and start working.

Nevertheless, his love for sports motivated him to return to running. Recognizing his talent in running, Bunthorn applied for the national sports competition in 2016 and won first place in the 800-1,500 meters, surpassing other athletes.

Although he was not selected for the national team at that time, Bunthorn continued his studies until 2018. He persevered and applied again for the National Games, eventually winning the competition. In 2019, he was selected as a national team athlete.

Sports training

In 2019, Bunthorn was selected as a national team athlete with the approval of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports. This allowed the General Department of Sports, in collaboration with Khmer Volunteer Athletic Federation, to focus on national sports training managed by the National Sports Training Center.

The Khmer Volunteer Sports Federation also assigned Kieng Samath, a former 800- to 1,500-meter runner and national record holder in Cambodia, as Bunthorn's coach.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Bunthorn had to adapt his training. He initially trained with Pov Sitha but later had to resort to virtual training sessions through Zoom. In 2021, he competed in the 31st SEA Games in Vietnam, where he received training abroad in collaboration with China. All national athletes were sent to China for training under highly experienced professional coaches.

While he was there, Bunthorn received guidance from the Chinese national team coach, which improved his abilities and provided comprehensive training to enhance his skills in various aspects of the sport, sports management, and athlete development.

Competition experience

Bunthorn's competition journey has had its ups and downs. In 2016 to 2017, as a member of the national triathlon team, he competed in Malaysia but did not achieve satisfactory results. However, he learned from the experience.

In his overseas race in Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar, Bunthorn did not perform well and even fell during the race. However, he used this setback to learn from his weaknesses and improve for future competitions.

During the 30th SEA Games in 2019 in the Philippines, Bunthorn trained extensively, but he did not win the competition due to strong athletes from other countries.

Despite the challenges faced in the 31st SEA Games in Vietnam due to the Covid-19 pandemic and inability to train together as a team, Bunthorn and his teammates gave their best efforts. However, they were unable to secure a victory due to the strong competitors from other countries.

For the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia, Bunthorn underwent a five-month local training program organized by the Cambodian SEA Games Organizing Committee. Additionally, the Chinese Embassy sent 160 Cambodian athletes to China for training in various sports, not only running.

Bunthorn faced numerous physical challenges during his training in China, including nosebleeds, broken toenails, sore knees, hands, and feet, as well as muscle aches. Despite these difficulties, he remained determined and trained hard, pushing himself to run alongside Chinese athletes and elevate his abilities to a high level.

Consequently, he achieved first place and won the first gold medal in the 800 meters at the 32nd SEA Games held in Cambodia.

Bunthorn emphasized that even with excellent coaches, managers, and support systems in place, success ultimately relies on the commitment and determination of the athletes themselves. Overcoming obstacles, giving maximum effort during training, and maintaining an unwavering spirit are crucial to achieving success in sports.

Techniques to win a gold medal

Bunthorn employed two key techniques that helped him become the first gold medalist in the 800 meters for Cambodia.

Firstly, he utilized the obstacle-breaking technique he learned from Chinese national team players. This technique involves skillfully navigating through a crowd of runners, using hand movements to touch and escape from opponents or move them aside.

Secondly, he employed a fighting technique. During the race, Bunthorn strategically slowed down to let opponents pass him. However, in the final 200 meters, he accelerated, using a small shield to create distance between himself and other runners.

By running closer to the inner corner, he fought to secure victory, driven by unwavering determination and the willingness to give his all on the field.

Future plans

Bunthorn is currently preparing for the 45-nation OPEN ASIA event in Thailand and subsequent participation in the Asian Games in China. These competitions will provide valuable experience and potentially open doors to participate in the Olympics. Following the Games in China, he will continue training for the 2024 Olympics in France.

Bunthorn acknowledges the challenges faced in pursuing the Olympics, as resources for sports are limited, and dedicated and committed athletes are essential. He emphasizes the need for athletes to overcome obstacles, remain fearless, and persevere, even in adverse conditions, to achieve success.

Advice for sports enthusiasts

Bunthorn noted the importance of finding a sport that one genuinely loves and enjoys. Setting clear goals, establishing a consistent training routine, taking care of one's body, and, most importantly, having fun are essential elements for success. With dedication, hard work, and a passion for their chosen sport, athletes can achieve great things and experience the numerous benefits that sports have to offer.

Bunthorn concluded by expressing heartfelt gratitude for the unwavering support he has received. He acknowledged the significant impact of the support, whether through financial assistance, words of encouragement, or simply being there to cheer him on. He credits this support for enabling him to pursue his goals and dreams, and he is truly grateful for having such supporters by his side.