Life's a Cherry thanks to petanque

Standing on the podium to receive her bronze medal for the women's singles competition last week, Thet Khin Cherry, 20, announced herself as a top prospect from petanque newcomers Myanmar at these SEA Games.

Yet, until three years ago, Cherry was an ordinary teenager living with six people in a wooden house in the Mon state of Myanmar, oblivious to the sport.

Her mother had died of a heart attack when she was eight, leaving her with her father, a farmer, and her brother, 13, a student. Cherry and her brother later moved in with her grandparents who were staying with her aunt and uncle a few blocks down the village, as her dad left to work in Thailand.

She told The Straits Times: "I first joined (petanque) after hearing the call for people who were interested to play petanque around March 2013, and I went to try because it seemed interesting.

"It turned out to be the best decision I've ever made, and my life has changed so much since.

"Initially, I didn't like petanque because playing under the sun for hours is so hot and tiring. But I started performing well and I really love and appreciate petanque now."

Nevertheless, with fewer than 10 months of preparation for the 2013 Naypyitaw Games, Cherry drew a blank on her Games debut.

Her performances, however, caught the eye of petanque coaches from Thailand, who invited her to move to that country to train under them.

Instead, she chose to train full time in Naypyitaw, the capital of Myanmar, along with 14 other petanque athletes, leaving her family behind in Mon state.

Three years of training later, she is a player-coach in the Myanmar team, earning US$200 (S$270) a month, including three meals and an apartment space with the other petanque athletes.

The average salary of a full-time athlete in Myanmar is US$50 a month.

While Cherry is delighted that her training has paid off with a bronze in her second Games outing in Singapore, it came at a price of leaving her family and visiting them only once for 11/2 months in her three years of training.

Still, she is adamant that her sacrifices are worth it, saying: "I try to call my grandparents every day after training and they encourage me to train hard and do them proud. It is enough for me.

"I send US$150 to them every month and I am proud to be able to repay the upbringing I received from them."

Myanmar coach Kesem Pnomgen is not surprised by Cherry's performance on the court.

The 67-year-old Thai said: "Cherry is a real talent. She is a natural with the way she throws and her mental strength is there. She's a fighter."

But Kesem is unhappy at the lack of quality petanque players in Myanmar, as they went from winning three golds and a bronze in 2013 to just two bronzes this time.

There are only 24 petanque players in the whole country, of which 12 are in the national team.

Said Kesem: "The people in Myanmar know petanque because they have seen it on TV during the 2013 Games, but no one plays it.

"They say that US$120 is too expensive for a set of three steel boules, but these balls last long and are cheaper than other sports equipment."

At least he can be proud of Cherry, who is certain she is on the right path in her sporting journey. "Petanque gave me a new life, and I will keep playing till petanque is no more," she said.

This article was first published on June 16, 2015.
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