ASEAN Para Games: Teen wins Laos' first-ever APG athletics medal

Just a month ago, Souliphone Vongdala was not even in Laos' athletics team for the ASEAN Para Games.

Yesterday evening, the shy and soft-spoken schoolgirl made history for her nation. The 16-year-old clinched a bronze in the T13 women's 400m event - marking Laos' first-ever athletics medal at the APG.

That sparked off elation from the Laotian contingent even as the attention heaped on her made the teenager look bewildered at the National Stadium.

Surrounded by her country's sports officials and fellow athletes, who streamed forward to congratulate her, Souliphone even received US$50 (S$70) from Laos chef de mission Dr Praseuth Bodhisane as a reward.

That is about the average monthly wage of their compatriots.

Dr Praseuth, who draped his country's flag over the shoulders of the runner, told The Sunday Times excitedly: "I'm so happy that I cried just now. A medal, she has won a medal for us. "We are all so proud of her.

"She is new and we hope that she can win big. She is one of our biggest future hopes."

Souliphone's medal is precious, given that she is one of only four Laotian representatives, and also the youngest and only female athlete in athletics at the Games.

Laos have one of the smallest contingents at the Games, with just 39 athletes, one of whom is her elder brother Keolammone, who is competing in goalball.

Born partially sighted to divorced parents who are village farmers in the northern province of Xayaburi, Souliphone now lives in a disability centre in Vientiane, the nation's capital.

She competed at school events and was spotted by Laos' ministry of education and sports last month, who drafted her into the APG team.

While many sprinters will readily name Usain Bolt as their role model, Souliphone's choice is Thai blind runner Wannaruemon Kewalin, who won the T11 race wearing Hello Kitty eyeshades on Friday.

Visually impaired athletes fall under T/F11-T/F13 categories, where the higher the classification, the lower the disability. In T11, the runners must wear eyeshades to ensure fairness and they are allowed to run with a guide.

Souliphone can continue to emulate her idol today and do Laos proud as she is slated to take part in the 200m T13 event.

Looking ahead, she said simply through a translator: "I hope that more athletes, especially girls, will be able to join me."

This article was first published on December 6, 2015.
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