Sima Suon makes history on the court with Cambodian women’s basketball

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As students and as athletes, the River Hawks strive to make a difference. In the classroom, during competition, and beyond, UMass Lowell produces professionals who seek to change the lives of the people around them. They blend their passions with purpose, which creates meaningful opportunities for them after college.

For the Athletic Academic Coordinator Sima Suon, this mix combines his adoration for athletics as well as the pride of his Cambodian American culture. A native of Lowell, she stayed in her hometown to attend college from 2013 to 2017 and was an accomplished javelin thrower on the River Hawks track team.

In May 2022, her dedication led her to Hanoi, Vietnam for the rare opportunity to represent Cambodia at the Southeast Asian Games. Along with other Cambodian Americans, she helped organize and play for the nation in women’s basketball for the first time since 1974.

“A big reason I wanted to get into athletics was to be a representative as an Asian woman in sports, which is hard to come by,” Suon said. “I spent a lot of time realizing that in my career path I wanted to make sure people like me were represented in the world of athletics. I fought very hard to secure my place in the athletics. To take on a huge role in the development of Cambodian basketball is the icing on the cake.”

Suon has always enjoyed being in the world of sports, competing in a variety including soccer, basketball, and softball, before eventually joining the women’s track and field team at UMass Lowell. Being around athletics became part of her identity and she pursued a career that would allow her to stay involved even after her time in competition.

After earning her undergraduate degree in psychology as River Hawk, Suon continued her studies at the University of Miami where she completed her master’s degree in education and sports administration. When the opportunity to return to work at her alma mater presented itself, she did not hesitate to seize it. In her role, she encourages student-athletes to stay engaged in the community and to become model citizens. Additionally, she sees the work culture in the sport as something unique in the industry.

“Athletics is something to look forward to,” she said. “I work as an academic coordinator, but if there’s a game, I know our athletic department will be there to cheer on the players. I think that’s really cool. We bring the community together, and that’s exciting and it became a part of me as a person.”

In addition to her position at UMass Lowell, Suon has been actively involved with the Cambodian Basketball Association of the United States (UCBA). By networking with the Cambodian community, she was put in touch with board members who appreciated her experience in sports administration. Over time, Suon earned a spot on the UCBA board of directors and initially helped build the men’s basketball team. Helping to send the program to compete in the Southeast Asian Games in 2019, attention then turned to organizing a women’s team. As the only woman in the association, she was grateful for the chance to meet this challenge head-on.

“I think visibility was my biggest obstacle,” Suon said. “I knew that finding elite Cambodian female athletes would be a big challenge. It was going to take a lot of effort, between networking and the visibility of our association and our mission in the rest of the country.”

Using the influence of the men’s team and his participation in the 2019 Games, Suon organized a social media campaign to educate, inform and attract Cambodian athletes to UCBA’s goal. The efforts have encouraged anyone who is interested or knows someone who might be to participate in the program and spread the word.

Securing commitment to the team was another hurdle faced by Suon and the other board members. Asking potential entrants to sacrifice finances, time, and other expenses to be able to compete is no mean feat. Even Suon herself knew that committing to hosting the program would require her to spend time away from UMass Lowell. However, she is extremely grateful for the support and encouragement she has received from her colleagues.

“That’s great,” she said. “The Games were supposed to take place last November, but they were postponed because of COVID. Asking your colleagues to take on the burden of your work to spend so much time outdoors, and then for them to say it’s a no brainer, that was a really good feeling to have. Everyone who found out about it before I left was so excited for me to have the opportunity. They were asking for links to watch games. Love it in our office It made me even more excited because I realized it meant a lot, not just to me, but also to others I work with.”

Narrowing down talent in Suon’s player scouting hasn’t been an easy task. The new three-way Olympic basketball competition meant the roster she had to make was much smaller than a traditional team. Eventually, selecting the best players to travel to Vietnam for the tournament, Suon and the team began to work on building their chemistry.

“The other three players were all on the west coast,” Suon said. “When you’re 3,000 miles away, traveling and practicing isn’t in the foreground. In the future, we hope to be able to do that, but we’ve always stayed connected. We’ve met frequently on Zoom, checking in on all the two weeks to see how everyone was. There was a lot of self-reliance and trust to make sure that, although we were apart, we were each working and doing what needed to be done to prepare.

Before Suon and her teammates left for the competition, they finally had the opportunity to meet in person on the West Coast and have a few last practice sessions before their trip to Asia. It had been 12 years since she had visited Cambodia, and Suon was looking forward to experiencing the country and the southeast region for the first time as an adult. The sudden accomplishment of the mission and the hard work that paid off came together on a charter flight to Hanoi from Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

“We were on a flight with other athletes. That’s when we realized it was all real. We were all going to compete for our country. I was standing next to a 6-foot-7 volleyball player thumbs up and I thought, ‘This is insane!'”

Similar to the Olympics, the Southeast Asian Games celebrate the athletes with a grand opening ceremony and a tremendous parade that welcomes the participants in front of the spectators. That experience cemented what Suon says is the most memorable part of her Games experience.

“It’s just unreal,” she said. “You see it when you watch the Olympics, but being there and absorbing all that energy is hard to explain. Each team only had 30 delegate seats for the athletes taking part in the ceremony. You’re sitting in a sort of bullpen , waiting to hang out with the other athletes and one of them might become a gold medalist Cambodia women’s soccer team hadn’t played since 1974 either, so being in the same company as them is really inexplicable. You are in absolute shock.

Three-on-three basketball is a new addition to the Games, debuting in 2019. Due to fewer players on the court, the space opens up and the game becomes much faster. The games consist of non-stop action for a 10-minute period with the teams racing to reach the 21 points needed for victory. Although the strategy is quite different from that of traditional basketball with five players on the side, both teams have only one goal in mind: to win. That said, Suon notes the importance of having fun while she was competing.

“I was thrilled that Vietnam was the host country because they were able to have a lot of success,” she said. “Their men’s and women’s teams won medals. Also, seeing people come out and support, fill the basketball stadium and flood the streets outside with excitement to see their teams play was so cool. The games are organized by the Cambodia in 2023, so he was like a forecast of what we can expect for us and our team next year.”

After competing at the Games, Suon now looks to the next steps needed to move the team in the right direction for the future. She now believes the team’s involvement in the Games will spur Cambodia to hire a full-time coach to prepare players for competition. The hope is that the nation and its athletic representatives will generate more interest in women’s basketball to enhance team development. For UCBA, they will maintain their recruiting efforts, sparing no effort in finding Cambodian Americans with the skills to compete for a national team.

Suon says she is incredibly grateful for the opportunity and has learned a lot from the experience that she intends to apply to her work at UMass Lowell and beyond.

“This experience has ignited a new fire in me to find ways to make an impact both here at Lowell and beyond. Stepping up to my role and gaining the trust of people older and younger than me has also helped to hone my leadership skills. I am able to develop something from nothing and hope to see that progress skyrocket in the future.”

River Hawks are determined individuals who strive for greatness in all aspects of life. For Suon, her roots are both at home in Lowell, but also halfway around the world in Cambodia.
Athletics became part of his identity, which merged with his culture to introduce him to the incredible experience of the Southeast Asian Games and UCBA.

“It means a lot to me to be a face for other Cambodian female athletes,” she said. “I hope this team has encouraged all reluctant athletes to participate and get them excited about any sport. Now they could have the opportunity to represent their country, culture and homeland in an event and not get feel like the only person in their respective fields.”

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