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Shoot That Invisible Ball! How A Top Wheelchair Player Keeps Up Her Game In Lockdown

Sinet An, who was born with a disability, is the star of Cambodia's women's wheelchair basketball team, which celebrated their first win in an international tournament just before the pandemic hit. With Cambodia in lockdown, she hones her skills in virtual practice sessions from her home in Chuuok village in Kandal province, Cambodia. The photo is from June 24.
Sinet An, who was born with a disability, is the star of Cambodia's women's wheelchair basketball team, which celebrated their first win in an international tournament just before the pandemic hit. With Cambodia in lockdown, she hones her skills in virtual practice sessions from her home in Chuuok village in Kandal province, Cambodia. The photo is from June 24.

It's 11:15 a.m., and Sinet An is in her living room shooting an invisible basketball.

She's widely regarded as the best wheelchair basketball player in Cambodia — a fierce defender and top scorer on the women's National Team. She's a key reason the team, just three years old, has turned heads at recent international competitions.

Then came the pandemic. The team can't practice, scrimmage or travel to tournaments like they used to. But that hasn't stopped Sinet An — who's better than ever despite it all.

Working out at home, she dips the ball down, into her stomach. Then her left arm pumps up — right hand cupping the ball — and at the top of her shot, her wrist snaps forward with a touch of Steph Curry grace.

Dip. Pump. Snap. Dip. Pump. Snap.

Sinet's spent the last year mastering her stroke, and it shows.

"If you're not sure, watch Sinet," coach Joe Higgins tells the rest of the team. "It is perfect."

Sinet, 33, lives in Chuuok village, about an hour west of Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. Born with a disability that makes it extremely difficult to walk unaided, she's used a leg brace since her teenage years.

Unfortunately COVID-19, now in its ugly third wave in Cambodia, has dealt them a headwind. Because of lockdowns, now they practice online.

Sinet An stretches during a virtual practice session.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
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Sinet An stretches during a virtual practice session.

Legendary Work Ethic

Twice a day Sinet throws on a jersey and takes a seat in her living room. She props her phone up on a table and logs into Zoom, where she sees the faces of players from all over Cambodia.

They practice sprints, ball handling and shooting. They talk strategy. On Fridays, they work out with Higgins, a warm but hard-driving coach in Vancouver, British Colombia, who works with teams around the world .

Sometimes Higgins puts Sinet on screen. Her work ethic is legendary.

Sinet An had never touched a basketball before 2013. The key to her success: "train again and again and practice again and again, to be better and better." Because of pandemic lockdowns, she can only practice at home.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
/
Sinet An had never touched a basketball before 2013. The key to her success: "train again and again and practice again and again, to be better and better." Because of pandemic lockdowns, she can only practice at home.

To her, basketball is all about reps.

"What made me gain more skill, and get better and better, is practicing every day. And learning all the principles, all the rules that we have to do," she says through an interpreter. "And then train again and again and practice again and again, to be better and better."

An estimated 150,000 Cambodians experience some form of disability, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

For many, the disability traces back to encounters with landmines or cluster munitions left over from past conflicts. Those include American bombing in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime in the 1970s, and a civil war that continued into the 1990s.

Estimates vary, but according to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre, some 4-6 million mines remain undiscovered.

Newer drivers of disability, for young people especially, are road accidents and noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes.

Sinet An lifts weights with her teammates as part of her regular workouts via Zoom.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
/
Sinet An lifts weights with her teammates as part of her regular workouts via Zoom.

Bringing The Sport To Cambodia

Wheelchair basketball, which the ICRC introduced in Cambodia in 2012, has caught on organically – first with women and more recently with men. There are around 80 players in the country, up from 30 just a few years ago. There are three club teams, and more are in the works. A national wheelchair-basketball federation has formed.

There are subtle signs of a sport taking root. Sinet's team recently got jerseys made. They're Corvette red with blue trimmings. The words "Kompong Speu Golden Bees" adorn the midsection.

Why bees? Because bees work together for the hive. Kompong Speu is a province just west of Phnom Penh.

Basketball is hardly a cure-all for challenges like employment or mobility. But as the ICRC has observed in other countries, basketball does sometimes change the way people with disabilities see themselves.

"When you see people now who play sports — and you hear them say it too — they really have energy for other things and confidence in other things in life," says Denver Graham, a prosthetics specialist who's worked with the ICRC in Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan and now Cambodia.

Sinet An is so good at her sport that her coach posts videos of her technique to inspire other wheelchair athletes.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
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Sinet An is so good at her sport that her coach posts videos of her technique to inspire other wheelchair athletes.

Take Sinet. Asked what she does for a living, she responds, "I'm an athlete."

A paid athlete, in fact. The ICRC gives her a monthly stipend, about $135 a month, to play basketball – and, given her obvious aptitude for the game, to coach when needed.

She has a small business selling soft drinks, she says, but that's a side hustle.

Sinet first touched a basketball at a training event in 2013. She'd never played sports before. Out of the group – all women – most had never seen a basketball game much less played one.

Jess Markt, a sport and inclusion adviser with ICRC — and a hooper himself — showed them the ground-level basics. Shooting technique. Passing. Communicating on the court.

Driven To Succeed

They weren't extraordinarily tall or athletic. But they learned fast and were eager to improve. Especially Sinet, who seemed driven to master even fine details of the game.

She was soon practicing three days a week with other players in her area. When possible, they scrimmaged with a group from the opposite side of the country, in Battambang. (Today that team is called the Battambang Roses.) Whenever a foreign coach came to lead a training, Sinet was there.

By the end of 2013 Sinet was a select member of the women's national team. By 2015 she was captain and traveling to international competitions.

They didn't win much. But Sinet took notes. "They are so good," she remembers thinking. "For example, Japan, Chinese, Americans, they all play very well, and I can learn from them."

Sinet An shows off photos of her basketball team in their early days in 2013.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
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Sinet An shows off photos of her basketball team in their early days in 2013.

In November 2019 the team went to Thailand for the regional Paralympic Qualifiers. The women were pumped for the game against Afghanistan. Cambodia had come close but never beaten them.

"I remember them flying around the court, using great teamwork concepts of setting picks, team defense, communication," Markt says. "The Cambodian players worked so well as a team."

They won: Cambodia 38, Afghanistan 32.

After their victory, the women huddled for a moment. It was a milestone win.

"Everyone cried," says Doung Reaksa, who plays guard. "Because — emotionally, we can win. We can succeed."

Unfortunately, the team hasn't played an international game since.

For most of 2020, COVID-19 was not enormously disruptive in Cambodia. Confirmed cases rarely topped 15 or 20 a day. Sinet and her teammates still got to practice three days a week.

Since February more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been identified locally, helping push daily caseloads into the thousands.

The lockdowns have been swift and severe.

Sinet didn't even have time to grab her gear from her rehab center — like her sport wheelchair or her weights. (She only uses the wheelchair for basketball and otherwise uses her leg brace and a crutch to get around.)

But she did have a phone.

Soon she was practicing virtually.

These days Sinet joins dozens of other Cambodian players on Zoom to practice twice a day, six days a week.

Coached From Canada

Cambodians lead most practices. But on Friday mornings, the group trains with Higgins, who Zooms in from Vancouver.

Higgins likes to hype up practices with music. Sometimes that's Bryan Adams. Sometimes that's the autotuned rhymes of Khmer rapper VannDa.

Basketball might not seem like something you can coach online.

Higgins, who's coached wheelchair basketball for 35 years, loves it.

It "allows us to have weekly contact and work on little details," he says. "Now that I've done it, I'd never go back."

In fact, during the pandemic, he's done Zoom trainings with players in a dozen places. Some are powerhouses of the sport, like Canada. Others are just getting started, like Bangladesh and the Gaza Strip.

He's set up a YouTube vault showing how players around the world practice specific skills: cutting, layups, U-turns.

Of course many people stuck at home don't have access to a basketball or sport wheelchair or even weights. Higgins emphasizes working with what you have.

In Cambodia some players have fashioned weights out of cement blocks and PVC pipe. One player doesn't have a ball, so he shoots a coconut.

Sinet An gets around on a motorbike adapted for her disability.
/ Cindy Liu for NPR
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Sinet An gets around on a motorbike adapted for her disability.

Sinet says practicing online has upsides and downsides.

Using Zoom can be a struggle. The live video practices can make her phone heat up.

But she's also developed a 5-minute shooting routine. It includes shooting with a basketball and shooting without one. As Coach Joe says: It's the form that matters.

Her stroke has gotten so nice that Higgins asked for a video he could share.

Sinet can't wait to get back on the court. She wants to link up with her teammates and pick up where they left off.

She's a woman of few words. Yet a competitive fire blazes in her eyes.

Sinet's Advice

I ask what she thinks the team needs to improve. "First thing, we have to feel more trust among the team," she says. Meaning: teamwork.

Anything else?

Take a guess.

"Second, we have to do more practice."

Yon Sineat contributed reporting to this story.

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