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Lt. Chhem Young-Pen, 33, was selected this week as the Navy's top athlete for 2002. He is stationed in Rota, Spain.

Lt. Chhem Young-Pen, 33, was selected this week as the Navy's top athlete for 2002. He is stationed in Rota, Spain. (Scott Schonauer / S&S)

NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — A Rota-based Navy pilot known for his prowess on the racquetball court is the Navy’s top athlete.

Lt. Chhem Young-Pen, 33, has been selected as one of the best in the armed forces for 2002. He and nine other military athletes will be honored March 28 at the annual U.S. Military Sports Association Pride of the Nation banquet in Arlington, Va.

Young-Pen was shocked when he learned of the selection.

“I feel pretty proud, pretty honored to be picked, considering the number of athletes and the different categories,” he said.

Winners were selected by their services.

Young-Pen, a C-12 pilot stationed at Naval Station Rota, is the No. 1-ranked amateur player in the European Racquetball Federation, a subset of the professional International Racquetball Tour. In his first full year on the tour, he has dominated the league.

He won the British Open in October, the French Open in January and was the No. 1 seed at the 1 seed at the Dutch Open this past weekend.

Young-Pen, whose family immigrated to Seattle from Cambodia when he was 6 years old, joined the Navy after graduating from high school. He later got a degree in electrical engineering and became an officer and aviator.

He flew P-3 aircraft before coming to Rota to fly C-12 propeller planes, a transport aircraft that ferries servicemembers between bases in Europe.

He started playing racquetball about 12 years ago when he was a Navy petty officer, and the game has become his passion.

“It’s just great exercise for me to get on the court to sweat,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes in December.

“The athletic ability to dive, get to every ball to cover the court, it’s amazing to me the amount of physical ability it does take to move around such a small court. The ball moves so fast and it’s a lot harder than it sounds like.

“It’s a great sport.”

Tops in their sport

The year’s top athletes and their sports:

Men

• Navy: Lt. Chhem Young-Pen, Naval Station Rota, Spain; racquetball.

• Coast Guard: Lt. Adam A. Chamie, Coast Guard Training Center, Cape May, N.J.; powerlifting.

• Army: Sgt. Dremiel Byers, Fort Carson, Colo.; wrestling.

• Marine Corps: Capt. J. Daniel Hicks, Camp Butler, Okinawa, Japan; wrestling.

• Air Force: Tech. Sgt. Anthony Patrick, Kadena Air Base, Japan; softball.

Women

• Navy: Petty Officer Tina Eakin, USS Pinckney (San Diego, Calif.); triathlon/marathon.

• Coast Guard: Lt. Amy B. Grable, Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; distance running.

• Army: Pfc. Tina Wilson, Fort Carson, Colo.; wrestling.

• Marine Corps: Capt. Kristin McCann, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.; distance running.

• Air Force: 2nd Lt. Kristy Kuhlman, Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.; soccer.

For more information on the Armed Forces Sports Program, see www.armedforcessports.com.

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