Bou Samnang (right) poses for a selfie with fans at the Morodok Techo Stadium

Phnom Penh (AFP) - Everyone in Phnom Penh, it seems, wants a selfie with Bou Samnang.

The Cambodian runner has become a star of the Southeast Asian Games since her gritty performance in the 5,000m. Although she came last, her determination to finish the race under torrential rain charmed the country and even won plaudits from Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Videos of her crying after crossing the line have gone viral.

“I can say now I’m famous,” the 20-year-old said at the Morodok Techo Stadium, the scene of her unlikely rise to prominence, where passers-by were lining up for photos with her.

“Although I lost, they support me from the bottom of their hearts.”

This week’s race was not the first time Bou Samnang has had to show determination, but is the latest step on an athletics journey that started on ill-equipped dirt tracks and has defied health problems and bereavement.

“I knew I was losing. The rain was so heavy,” said the Phnom Penh native, whose mother is a housewife and whose father died in an accident a few years ago.

Bou Samnang finished the 5,000m in 22 minutes and 54 seconds, just under six minutes after Thi Oanh Nguyen

“I had the right to abandon the race, but first I have a duty to represent Cambodia. So I did not give up.”

When she first started running while at secondary school on the capital’s outskirts, facilities were spartan.

“We lacked everything to support training,” she said. “I had only one pair of shoes, almost no sports shirts. We just trained on normal surfaces, like flat concrete or sometimes just on the dirt ground.”

She joined the national athletics programme in 2016 and started to receive more support, before making the main squad five years later. She spent much of 2022 in China training for her country’s first ever home Games.

But she has long suffered with anaemia, or a lack of red blood cells, and was feeling weak on the day of her big race.

“My trainer said because of my health condition I should not do it. But because of the nation, I committed myself to the race,” she said.

Bou Samnang plans to enrol in university this year, in IT and law, while continuing her athletics career

The eventual winner was Vietnam’s Thi Oanh Nguyen, one of the region’s finest athletes. Five minutes later, after the heavens opened, Bou Samnang was still going.

“I tried to reach the finish line because I wanted to show people that in life, even though we go a bit slow or fast, we will reach our destination all the same,” she said. “So we should not give up. We should try our best.”

The rain-sodden Cambodian finished in 22 minutes and 54 seconds, just under six minutes after Oanh.

“When I reached the finish line, I was quite disappointed, because I did not win, but I was also happy; although they knew I lost the race, (supporters) encouraged me. I did not expect the video to go viral, I really thank them for their support.”

Hosting the Southeast Asian Games is a big occasion for Cambodia, a country which has faced plenty of adversity itself, with civil war and genocide still in living memory. The government has in recent years tried to promote and fund sports in the run-up to the event.

Moved by her spirit, many officials and bodies have given Bou Samnang cash bonuses since the race, including Hun Sen, who said he gave her a $10,000 reward “to encourage perseverance”.

“I will use the money to support my family,” she told AFP, adding that she would like to pay off her mum’s debts, as well as fund her own education.

She plans to enrol in university this year, in IT and law, while continuing her athletics career. Some schools have already offered scholarships.

But she will still be an athlete, with eyes on the next Southeast Asian Games in Thailand.

“In the future, if there is an event in Thailand or other countries, I will try my best for the country,” she said. “I will try my best in the future to get the reward for my nation, and for my supporters.”