1960s Swimming Great Hem Thon Passes Away at Age 71

Hem Thon, widely considered Cambodia’s greatest swimmer, passed away in Phnom Penh on Monday evening at the age of 71.

Hem Kiry, Hem Thon’s son and deputy director of the Khmer Swimming Federation, said his father—who won 12 international medals in the 1960s and ’70s and later became deputy secretary-general of the National Olympic Committee of Cambodia—died at 6:45 p.m. Monday following a long battle with lung disease and hepatitis.

Mourners pay their respects to swimming legend Hem Thon at his home in Phnom Penh's Pur Senchey district on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Mourners pay their respects to swimming legend Hem Thon at his home in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“My father had just recovered from illnesses recently but was sent to the hospital again on Saturday morning as he did not feel well,” Mr. Kiry said Tuesday during a ceremony at his father’s house in Pur Senchey district.

“He was a breadwinner who struggled for his children all his life and always worked hard for sports,” he added.

Born in Kandal province in 1943, Hem Thon originally hoped to become a professional football player, but took up swimming when his mother forbid him from traveling to China in 1959 for a training trip with the national team.

Hem Thon became the face of Cambodian swimming during the 1960s, hailed by many as the country’s golden era of sporting success. When the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975, the country’s athletes were either purged or forced to hide their identity.

After outliving four of his children, who died of starvation during the Pol Pot era, Hem Thon returned to Kandal and became a farmer before some of his fellow surviving sportsmen tracked him down and asked him to help rebuild the country’s sports scene.

Speaking at Tuesday’s ceremony, Olympic committee president Thong Khon said he was sad that Hem Thon did not live to witness Cambodia host the 2023 SEA Games.

“He…said there were only eight more years until the SEA Games, so he might be able to see it, but now we have lost him,” Mr. Khon said.

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