Meet the 43-Year-Old Khmer Rouge Survivor Trying to Become Cambodia's First Female Olympic Marathoner

Nary Ly quit her job as a research scientist with the U.S. Navy to focus on the final push for the Rio Olympics, where, if she makes the cut, she will make history as the first Cambodian woman to run a distance event at the Summer Games.

by Michael Light
May 18 2016, 1:15pm

Courtesy Nary Ly

Nary Ly holds a PhD in biology and has spent nearly her entire working life studying infectious diseases in Cambodia. She does not consider herself a professional athlete. And yet this summer she has a chance to become the first Cambodian woman to represent her country in the Olympic Games at marathon—or any distance running event.

"When I was young, I did not train to run," she says. "In Cambodia, there's not really a path to."

A 43-year-old survivor of Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, Nary ran her first organized race only nine years ago, an international half-marathon held at Angkor Wat to raise money for Cambodian children with HIV/AIDS.

Though it wasn't her intention, Nary made history that day by becoming the first Cambodian woman to compete in an international distance event. Since then, she has registered a series of firsts for herself and her country, upending athletic expectations and cultural norms along the way.

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Since she began running in 2006, Nary has logged hundreds of miles on the cracked pavement track of Phnom Penh's hopefully named Olympic Stadium and along the capital city's crowded streets. Most of that time was spent juggling the demands of training with her career as a scientist.

"You have to wake up early to avoid traffic," she says. "I wake up at 4:30. And for long distance, you can't really train in the stadium, doing forty or fifty laps. You have to go out."

Morning after morning, Nary has done just that. She ran for hours along the unlit, sidewalk-less National Roads 1 and 4, and through rice fields that border the city. She often hired a moto taxi to follow her—in part to carry a water jug, and in part to protect her from oncoming traffic. Reports of speeding cars mowing down pedestrians are not uncommon in the region. Running in Cambodia is not just difficult; according to Nary, it simply isn't done—and especially not by women.

"With the dark, with the heat, I don't think that a lot of Cambodian women are willing to run," she says.

They can be reluctant to run outdoors for another reason: "In Asia," Nary says, "they care about white skin." Whiteness is synonymous with wealth and desirability. In Phnom Penh during the dry season, when temperatures routinely reach above 100 degrees, women on scooters are more likely than not to be wearing heavy, hooded sweatshirts and felt gloves.

"My relatives tell me I've gotten darker, my skin has become black, my face has spots," Nary says. "It's not beautiful to them. Especially young girls, they like to be white like Japanese or Korean girls."

Nary became the first Cambodian woman to run a full marathon at the New York City Marathon in 2009, while she was working as a research fellow at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan. Last year, she broke the three-hour mark with a time of 2:59:12 at the Valencia Marathon in Spain.

That still falls short of the entry standard for women's marathon at Rio by more than 14 minutes, but Nary hopes to compete via a universality place, which the International Olympic Committee allocates to developing countries that otherwise might not have a presence at the Games. The International Association of Athletics Federation, the world governing body for track and field, allows countries whose athletes don't qualify to nominate "their best male athlete and their best female athlete in one athletic event each."

Universality places were first awarded to Cambodia in 1996; at that point, the country hadn't competed in the Olympics for 24 years—not since before the Khmer Rouge's bloody reign.

Khmer Rouge military forces in action in 1975. Photo by EPA

Nary was born in Phnom Penh in 1973, the youngest of eleven siblings. Just two years later, the city would be seized by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, whose brutal regime would be responsible for the deaths of around two million people, or a quarter of the country's population.

"When I was young, it's like a short movie in my brain," Nary says. "I don't remember the time and date, but I remember there was no school. I remember only a few things from my country, from my home, about my mother when she punished us. We were free. We ran around naked picking mangoes, catching crickets.

"We were separated, the children with the children. You didn't live with your family. All of us would sleep in the same room on an uneven floor—when one of us peed in the night, it was everywhere. I remember sleeping on the road and going with the other children to work in the field. I didn't see any torture during my childhood, but I remember the difficulties."

After the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1979, civil war continued to push the death toll higher, so when Nary was nine years old, the Red Cross relocated her to France.

In France, Nary's life completely changed. She lived with a French family, pursued her education, and earned scientific degrees. By the time she returned to Cambodia at age 26, after the civil war had ended, she had forgotten how to speak Khmer.

Her childhood world had changed, too. Only four of Nary's siblings were still alive.

"When you are shy and small, everything looks bigger, and a river is a river," she says. "But when my brother brought me back to the village where we grew up, the river was dry. And the wooden bridge that I crossed, it was collapsed."

While Nary has had her nationality questioned by other Cambodians, with neighbors and even acquaintances mistaking her for a foreigner, she still considers Cambodia home.

"I was never going to be a French person," she says. "Physically, you cannot lie. You have the black hair, you have the small eyes, you have an accent. It's why I did research in Cambodia. I've lived in New York and in Paris and Spain, but Cambodia is a part of me."

The Choeung Ek killing fields, where thousands of Khmer Rouge victims were buried in mass graves near Phnom Penh. Photo by EPA

This past January, Nary was nominated for one of Cambodia's universality places at the Rio Olympics. The country has sent two swimmers and two track and field athletes to every Summer Games since 1996; they are nominated by Cambodia's National Olympic Committee (NOCC), which in turn receives recommendations from the Khmer Amateur Athletic Federation (KAAF).

In making the selection, the NOCC cited Nary's performance in Valencia. While her nomination would seem to indicate acceptance and support from the Cambodian athletic establishment, Nary says that hasn't come easily.

For starters, she says, many Cambodians have no idea what a marathon actually is.

"People in Cambodia give a lot of coverage to soccer and boxing, but athletes, running, most people don't even know how many kilometers are in a marathon," Nary says. "They have never heard of it."

Nary at the New York City Marathon. Courtesy Nary Ly

Nary started lobbying for a place on Cambodia's Olympic team in 2011, before the London Games. While she was already recognized as a decorated, history-making athlete, she was nevertheless left off the country's Olympic squad.

"The men who run the [Cambodian sports] governing bodies told me I was too old to run at the Olympics," she says. "Even then, I was the best in the country. They lacked knowledge of the spirit of the sport."

Instead, the NOCC nominated Chan Seyha, an 18-year-old who at the time had just one international competition under her belt, the 2011 track and field world championships, in which she placed 37th out of 38 competitors in the 200 meters.

On the men's side, the NOCC nominated Japanese comedian Neko Hiroshi to run the marathon. Best known for his TV impersonations of a cat, Hiroshi became a naturalized Cambodian citizen in 2011 with help from the country's athletic officials after he donated between $20,000 and $30,000 toward the establishment a half-marathon in Phnom Penh.

The NOCC's selection was controversial—they snubbed Cambodian runner and former Olympian Hem Bunting, who had been the country's flag bearer for the 2008 Games and whose marathon time that spring had been only five minutes shy of qualifying—and the IAAF ultimately decided that Hiroshi was not yet eligible to compete for Cambodia; the country sent Kieng Samorn, a 800-meter runner who finished last in his first heat, in his place.

Meanwhile, Seyha also finished last in her preliminary heat and never raced again, leaving Nary to wonder, What if?

"You are not going to the Olympics to model," Nary says. "But they think that picking a young woman is a better representation of the country. It was a frustration for me in 2012.

"Sometimes I get frustrated when there is no justice. It is important to me to be fair. That's why I do sports. It's why I defend sports, because you don't need to be rich or poor to do well in them. You are good or you are not good."

Nary says that when she asked a KAAF official if she could represent Cambodia in the 2011 Southeast Asia Games, she was told that there was no female marathon in the competition (which is demonstrably false). Asked why Nary was not allowed to compete in the SEA Games, a NOCC official told VICE Sports, "My opinion is that you should not ask questions of the KAAF about the past. I think it will not be good for you. That is my opinion. Only ask about the present."

"They don't like me because I'm frank," says Nary, who believes that she would have been left off this year's Olympic team, too, if not for ongoing coverage of her story in English-language publications. "The federation tries to fool me, but can't. I'm always going to go looking for the answer.

"Even this year, the same issue came up, that I was too old."

While age is a well-established factor in athletic performance, it's less of an issue in marathons. The second fastest man at this year's U.S. Olympic Trials in Los Angeles was 40-year-old Meb Keflezighi; he will have turned 41 by the time he goes to Rio this summer. Romania's Constantina Diță was 38 when she won the gold medal at the 2008 Games.

"It's not easy. Sometimes you have to fight for things that may seem obvious in a developed country," Nary says. "You know the marathon is the king of events in the Olympics. People in Cambodia don't know that."

"Sometimes you have to fight for things that may seem obvious." Courtesy Nary Ly

By 2014, Nary was making a final push for Rio. In order to train harder, Nary took a sabbatical from her job researching infectious diseases at the US Navy medical research unit in Phnom Penh. When it became clear she had a shot at making the Olympics, her break turned into a resignation.

Earlier this year, Nary flew to Kenya to run at the famed High Altitude Training Center, where she has previously spent months-long stints in order to increase her fitness, up her red blood cell count, and drive down her times. She estimates that her total Olympic bill, including training costs leading up to the Games, will be roughly $12,000, almost all of which she plans to pay out of pocket.

While a handful of Cambodian companies have expressed interest in sponsoring her, Nary says, only one has donated money: Chenda Polyclinic, a private medical center that hosted Nary while she completed her work for the US Navy, promised a $1,000 sponsorship in February.

According to Vath Chamroeun, secretary general of the NOCC, all Cambodian Olympians will receive IOC and government financial support. Cambodia's Minister of Education, Dr. Hung Chuon Naron, says that travel, food, and accommodations will be covered. A spokesperson from the KAAF says pieces of equipment and some training also will be provided.

Currently, Nary is unsure whether she needs to be based in Cambodia to receive any of those resources. "If you want to compete in international competition, you need to scale up your training," she says. "And that means leaving Cambodia."

Entry into the Olympics for unqualified athletes is at the discretion of the IAAF, but assuming she makes it to Rio in August, Nary's goals are simple: finish the race without injury, and without looking "ridiculous." Beyond that, her future is uncertain.

"After Rio, who knows. I may not have a job," she says. "So it's dangerous."

Still, Nary remains determined to follow her own path.

"You can give up at any time during the marathon," she says. "You can quit. Nobody is holding a gun up to your head saying, 'Go, finish.' When your legs tell you they cannot take any more miles or your heart is going to explode, you have to deal with your pain. Being born into the Pol Pot regime helped that.

"I've asked myself during runs, 'Why am I doing this to myself?' What for? Why fix a problem? Why find a cure? Why run? Why not do something different? But there is a reason. It's better to die than not try to reach a goal."