Burma aims to win 100 gold medals in this year’s South East Asia Games in December.
To achieve this target, Burma has included a number of more traditional sports in the line-up, including cane ball.
But there’s Nwe Nwe Htwe, 26-year-old female cane ball athlete who has reached the top of the sport.
She’s in intensive training for SEA Games, six days a week.
Sport has been her passion since childhood.
“When I was little, I used to watch the opening ceremony of the SEA Games. I was amazed to see the Burmese flag and Burmese athletes marching in the parade wearing traditional outfits,” she recalls. “I wanted to be like them.”
But when she was 13, she found it difficult to join in.
“At that time men wouldn’t allow me to play with them. They always kicked me out. They said,” You women shouldn’t play with us.” I didn’t know how to play so I just watched them.”
But one day the cane ball was kicked outside the playground. “I ran and collected the ball for them. After that they let me hit the ball now and again with them.”
She says it wasn’t easy for her to convince her parents either.
“At first my parents allowed me, but later the game affected my studies. I was very tired after playing and I couldn’t study well,” she says.
“My father forbid me from playing, but I continued in secret. I pretended to go to school but I played cane ball instead. When my mother discovered this, I was beaten. I promised not to play again, but I couldn’t stop...”
And she was determined to go against her parents’ will who wanted her to work for the government.
“He wanted me to finish high school and join the women’s police force, which I was not interested in. I went against their will,” she says.
And in the end, she had to give up her education.
“My father wanted me to stop playing sport. My father burned all my awards from the many national competitions I won when I was at school.”
She pauses a bit.
“When I got home I couldn’t find my awards anywhere so I asked my mother. Then I found the burnt awards near our house. I was shocked and began to cry. But this made me stronger and I promised to work harder to be successful in the sport.”
She’s not alone. Many students have to give up their education to follow their passion for sport because Burma doesn’t have any school that accommodates aspiring athletes.
The Deputy Director of the Ministry of Sports, Kyaw Zin Moe, thinks it’s time that Burma had one.
“Some children want to focus on education first and then they will take up sport after finishing high school. By that time they will be 16 years old, and they will only be selected for a team after 20 years of practicing,” he explains.
“A player performs best between the age of 15 to 25 and his performance will decrease after he’s 25 years old. We need a plan to include sport as a school subject.”
The turning point for Nwe Nwe Htwe came in 2006 when the Burmese cane ball team was recruiting new members.
She didn’t have any money then.
“I went to my sister-in-law’s house and told her that my father wanted me to get some money for him. I lied... but she gave me 30 US dollars.”
It was enough to get from Mon state to the capital.
“It was June 15th. I saw a way of achieving my dream. I thought, if I don’t do this now, I will never get another chance.”
And her dream finally came true.
“I was so excited!” she exclaims.
“I jumped around my room when I knew I’d been selected! There were six people selected out of 8 to join the intensive training and I was one of them.”
She says it was difficult for her at the beginning. She had to be patient when her trainers or seniors scolded her.
“I wanted to learn from them, so I had to hold myself back. As a junior, I had to practice more than the other players, from morning till evening. The trainer also told us that as juniors we’d need to practice more,” she recalls.
Now she looks forward to winning gold medals for her country.
“Our women’s team got gold medals in the Asian Games in China. We also won them in the SEA Games in Laos and Indonesia. So we expect to get the gold medal again in the upcoming SEA Games.”