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Journey to Cambodia: Connecting with my roots through trail running

By Laurie Phai

My name is Laurie and I am a former French professional table tennis player. I live in France and I am the mother of an 8-year-old boy. When I was training and competing in the table tennis world championships, I never would have thought I would become a trail runner with a potential to represent Cambodia in the Olympic Games. So how did that all happen? Here is my story.

My mother is French and my father is Cambodian. My father and his family were the victims of the Khmer regime. In 1978, he was able to escape and arrived in France (Montpellier), met his wife (a French teacher) with whom he had three kids. He hardly ever talked about his past, his childhood or his country. He tried to forget. So I did not know much about my Cambodian roots until life happened.

In 2005, I was at the top of my art as a professional table tennis player. I have competed under the French flag in various international championships. However, my body was tired and a knee injury forced me to stop for a while. This painful and unwanted break would eventually make me see life differently. In 2007, I ended my career as an athlete and began another chapter of my life.

I got married, got a job in HR and became a mother after giving birth to my son Antoine. In 2013, I lost my baby Sarah while giving birth. This traumatic event pushed me into running. To escape. To avoid thinking. And to feel my own kind of pain. After a while, I was able to begin the healing process, one step at a time, but the need for running never left my body nor my mind.

I started getting noticed thanks to my performances, and my coach at that time talked me into travelling to Cambodia for the first time in January 2017, in order to participate in the Angkor Trail. 39 years after my father escaped during the war, I discovered my father's roots and ran across his land. It was a very emotional race for me. I felt lifted and pushed by my father's history, I even won the 32km race! And that was when, as we said, life happened... A journalist who was covering the race introduced me to the Olympic Committee. They did not have a woman athlete capable of competing in the marathon distance in the upcoming Olympic Games. That is how I began to dream of running for my father's country in the Olympic Games.

Since that moment, I trained harder than ever, while working full time and taking care of my family. My goal was to run a marathon within 3:10.

In 2019 I was also very proud to represent Cambodia in the Trail Running World Championships in Portugal with four other athletes from Cambodia.

For the past 3 years I have been actively engaged with Cambodia. The country is part of who I am and who I want to become. Not only do I hope to represent Cambodia in the next Olympic Games, but I have also become very engaged in developing sports (especially running and trail running) in the country.

With other running friends, I founded an NGO called Trail Sans Frontières (TSF), which aims to promote sports and its life values towards young Cambodians. TSF has already intervened in Siem Reap schools and gave the students shoes and sport clothes to allow them to practice more easily.

My focus is now almost entirely on TSF: raising funds (money, clothes, school supplies, etc.), finding partners, planning talks in schools and organizing races in Cambodia is indeed a full-time mission! My next trip to Cambodia will be dedicated to organizing a training camp in the Happy Chandara School in Siem Reap.

Education and Sport have always been what kept me balanced and happy. I now want to share my experience and to help to develop sport in Cambodia.

I truly hope to be able to come back to Asia soon.

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