The Battambang Roses
How wheelchair basketball changed these women's lives:
When the Cambodian women’s wheelchair basketball team headed to their first major international competition, they found wins off the court.
In a buzzing stadium in Bangkok, Thailand, Sieng Sokchan clenched her fists and waited anxiously for the announcement she’d been working toward for years: “Ladies and gentlemen, the women’s wheelchair basketball teams that will participate in the 2018 Asia Para Games are China, Japan, Thailand, Iran, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.”
Sieng hugged and congratulated her teammates, who were seated next to her in wheelchairs, all wearing basketball shirts in blue and red—the colors of the Cambodian flag. In seven months, they would travel to Jakarta, Indonesia, to represent their country at the Asia Para Games, where nearly 3,000 athletes from 43 nations would compete in 18 sports.
As captain and coach, Sieng would lead the team of 12 women to its first major international contest, a daunting endeavor in the best of circumstances. But these players face tremendous challenges off the court as well—poverty, mobility impairments ranging from limited stamina to partial paralysis, and a lack of athletic resources.
“Training women to this level of the game hasn’t been easy,” said Sieng, 37, who is also a single mother of two. “We all have different struggles and had to work harder than everyone to overcome them.”
The World Bank ranks Cambodia as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Ten percent of the population experiences disability; the country also has the highest number of amputees in the world per capita. Forty years after the collapse of the Khmer Rouge, the effects of its bloody regime still linger. Millions of landmines that were planted alongside the Thai border continue to devastate local communities, including Battambang, The team’s home town.
Full story for National Geographic with text by Didem Tali