In 1975, 14-year old Mark Tran was forced out from his childhood home in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge.
The Khmer Rouge forced him, his mother and four of his nine siblings out of their family home in the Cambodian capital under the false pretense that the Americans were going to bomb Phnom Penh. The Trans grabbed the few belongings that they could carry on two bicycles for the long trek into the countryside.
Coming into power in 1975, the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the Cambodian genocide. During the Khmer Rouge’s four-year reign, approximately two million lives were taken through political executions, starvation and forced labor.
Within days of coming into power, the Khmer Rouge forced two million people into the forest to set up workforces in a new community. Tran and his family were among these people.
Survival in this environment was contingent on being invisible because opposition to the regime, even signs of intellect, was punishable by death.
Eventually, Tran was freed from the work camp when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge. Tran was escorted into a refugee camp in Thailand and escorted back to Cambodia before finally moving to Canada and then settling in Westminster, Calif., in 1983.
Mark spent a few years working whatever jobs he could find once he got to America. He then briefly went back to school. In 1995, Mark and his wife Linda bought a donut shop and began a new life for themselves and their two kids, Cindy and Alex.
Mark has told his daughter, Cindy, this story before, hoping that she would approach her comfortable life in America with gratefulness while reminding her to not be satisfied with what she has but to work harder for more.
“Life (in America) is a paradise, but it doesn’t come easy,” Mark says. “You have to work for it.”
Those words made an indelible impression on Cindy as both a swimmer and a person.
Growing up in this country is far different from how we grew up, so it’s kind of like two different environments,” Mark says. “As a parent, you teach your kid the way you were brought up, and that doesn’t really work here.”
Raising kids in an “American way” was part of assimilating to American culture for Cindy’s parents, and finding the balance between Cambodian culture and American culture was delicate.
“The American culture, and especially our generation, is a lot more liberal than my parents, who are pretty reserved,” Cindy says. “We couldn’t agree to disagree. Instead of trying, I just wouldn’t talk. It sucks to have lost those years because it’s hard to make up.”
In the end, the Trans managed to assimilate and make up for lost time, and one of the ways they managed was swimming.
Like most competitive swimmers, Cindy began her swimming career with recreational swimming lessons at the age of 6.
By the age of eight, Cindy exhausted the levels that the community swimming lessons had to offer, so one of the instructors introduced her to Golden West Coast Swim Club, a small mom-and-pop- owned swim club in Southern California.
From there, club swimming became a major part of her life. The better she got, the more time swimming required.
“It seems like the deeper and deeper we got into it, there was no way out, which is a good thing,” Mark says.
Swimming became a major part of the family’s dynamics.
Cindy’s parents supported her and her brother’s swimming careers. They worked in the donut shop in the early morning, so that in the afternoons they were free to take Cindy to practices and meets.
“They would take me to every morning practice, every afternoon practice, every meet,” Cindy says. “They did everything that they could, that they needed to do (and) that swimming asked for, so I couldn’t have asked for more.”
Much of the family’s time together came from driving back and forth between practices and meets, but the amount of time and energy poured into swimming took its toll at times.
While her parents gave her the necessary resources to pursue swimming, Cindy’s decision to continue with the sport and push forward in it was entirely her own choice. When Cindy took time away from swimming in junior high, her parents did not force her to get back into it.
But ultimately Cindy had a passion for the sport.
“They were never that hard-ass kind of parent,” she says. “If anything, they were like, ‘You go to practice all the time. Take a day off, you look tired,’ but they did ingrain something in me, that at some point I would have to make some kind of sacrifice.”
Cindy’s upbringing was starkly different from her parents’. Whereas her parents lived in a hostile environment in Cambodia, Cindy had opportunities to attend school and train as an elite athlete.
These different experiences made the gap between generations a glaring truth.
As with many children of first-generation immigrants, bridging the gap between two different cultures and backgrounds within a family was a struggle.
Early on, Cindy experienced the payoffs of her commitment to swimming.
As a junior in high school, Cindy broke former Cal great Natalie Coughlin’s 15-to-16 national age-group record in the 100 backstroke. One year later, she broke Coughlin’s national high school record.
The rewards of her sacrifices and her parents’ caught the college swimming coaches’ eyes. Cindy was recruited to Cal and Texas, some of the best collegiate swimming programs in the nation. While at Cal, she won a number of individual, relay and team national titles.
Now moving into her last season with the Bears, Cindy’s mentality toward swimming and her determination to push forward and improve will continue to be a byproduct of her parents’ influences. With the knowledge of her parents’ difficult journey from Cambodia to America, Cindy knows that things could be unlike anything she could imagine.
The generational tensions between her and her parents has allowed her the independence to choose her own paths in anything from choosing swim to choosing a college.
And her parents’ support has given her the resources emotionally and physically to pursue swimming and to fully explore her talents in the sport.
“Putting (Cindy) in swimming was the best thing we ever did,” Mark says.
Jessica Lim covers women’s swim. Contact her at [email protected].