Jan. 15, 2013
By Dean Caparaz '90
(This feature originally ran in the 2012-13 Winter Issue of the Cal Sports Quarterly)
Cindy Tran has found that she can overcome pretty much anything that life can throw at her.
The two-time defending NCAA 100-yard backstroke champion and a junior at the No. 1 public university in the nation, the Cal swimmer nevertheless has had her share of obstacles.
Tran was a major contributor to the Golden Bears' back-to-back NCAA titles in 2011 and 2012. She earned a total of six All-America honors - and a Pac-12 All-Academic honorable mention - over that span. An emerging talent internationally, Tran will be a member of the U.S. team competing at the World University Games next summer in Kazan, Russia.
It's no secret that her biggest challenges in the 100 back over the next two seasons could and should come from her own team - in the form of freshman Rachel Bootsma and future Bear Missy Franklin. Franklin and Bootsma - both 2012 U.S. Olympic gold medalists - finished 1-2 in the 100-meter back at Olympic Trials last summer, with Franklin winning the title in London. Freshman Elizabeth Pelton is a 200-back specialist and rising U.S. star who can also vie with Tran for the title of the best backstroker in the land.
Across the board, Cal has arguably its most broad-based collection of talent in the pool than it has ever had, which is saying a lot for a program that has won three of the last four NCAA championships and produced the likes of Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer and Mary T. Meagher.
Head coach Teri McKeever believes that her team, and Tran in particular, will be able to handle the increased competition.
"Cindy can't control what Rachel or Elizabeth may do," said McKeever, who coached Coughlin, Franklin, Bootsma and Vollmer in London last summer as the U.S. Olympic head coach. "She can only focus on herself and being better than she's ever been. It's human nature to look at other people, whether they're next to you every day or you're looking at results on the internet. But what each person chooses to do with it, that's where the real work is."
Tran - with her parents as role models - is well equipped to handle such pressures.
"It was hard this year at first, because the competition is getting stronger and stronger," Tran said. "But having them here has pushed me to work hard. In the long run, when it comes down to racing and having anxiety about what other people are doing, I think this is good practice."
This sort of struggle pales in comparison to what her parents dealt with while growing up in Cambodia.
Ethnically Chinese, Mark and Linda Tran were born and grew up in Cambodia, where they survived the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Both fled to Canada and later to Westminster, Calif., where they built a better life for themselves and eventually Cindy and her brother, Alex.
Tran's mother doesn't talk to her about what she lived through. In the summer of her junior year at Edison High School, Tran and her family visited relatives in Cambodia and toured concentration camps. Tran watched as her mother walked through one camp, apparently searching for something or some place in particular, though they never discussed it.
Mark Tran has told his daughter about the horrors he dealt with once the Khmer Rouge came to power, including the murder of his brother, near starvation and being forced from his home. Knowing that and watching her parents raise her family while working hard at their southern California donut shop has made Tran appreciative of her life.
"I do a pretty good job of putting things in perspective when things are going pear shaped," she said. "I'm very appreciative of things that people take for granted."
Fleeing Phnom Penh
After the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975, its troops drove much of the population of Phnom Penh - Cambodia's capital - into the countryside. The troops told the people that the Americans - who had supported the previous regime - were going to bomb the city. Fourteen-year-old Mark Tran, his mother (his father passed away in 1974), four of his siblings and a few other relatives left their family home with what they could carry on a pair of bicycles. One of 10 kids, Mark Tran did not know what became of the rest of his siblings at that point.
A long trek ensued and included the loss of many of his family's belongings, illness and little to eat but spare servings of rice. The journey left the Trans and many other refugees in a forest, where the Khmer Rouge told them to build a new community. They created one there but needed to remain careful, as the troops often removed anyone whom they thought threatened their power, especially anyone who was educated or appeared educated. Mark Tran heeded a friend's warnings to "act stupid" and "ask no questions" in order to survive.
In 1978, when the Trans were still living in this enforced community, soldiers suddenly pulled Mark Tran away from his work detail for a trip to an unknown location. They wound up near his old village at a clearing in the woods, where he found one of his younger brothers as well as a body laying on the ground. The body was that of one of his older brothers, who had been shot in the head. The Khmer Rouge forced the pair to bury him, which - despite their grief and their anger towards the nearby armed soldiers - the brothers did. They then returned to their mother, whom they told their brother died of illness.
In late 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and toppled the Khmer Rouge from power, which, in April of 1979, left the Trans free. They relocated to a refugee camp in bordering Thailand. But a dispute regarding funding from the United Nations led to Thailand returning many of the refugees to Cambodia at gunpoint.
Eventually, the Trans migrated to Canada, where some of Cindy's family still lives. Mark and Linda Tran moved to southern California, where they bought a donut shop that they still run today.
"Having gone through that made my parents hard workers," Cindy Tran said, "just to build a foundation for my brother and me to live in a place where we don't have to suffer like they suffered. Watching my parents and watching their work ethic made me improve mine. I've learned to enjoy working hard. I think that's helping me get through workouts and get through school and to enjoy life and be more enjoyable to be around."