For a hyperactive only child like Sima Suon ’17, sports were a great outlet as a kid growing up in Lowell — and “a blessing” for her Cambodia-born parents, who didn’t know what else to do with all her energy.

But even though Lowell has the second largest Cambodian American population in the country (behind Long Beach, California), Suon noticed that not many girls looked like her on the soccer fields and basketball courts.

“That’s very rooted in the tradition of our culture,” she says. “Women don’t really play sports; they’re doing house tasks, going to school, taking care of siblings, parents, grandparents. There’s not much room for extracurricular activities.”

Suon, a former javelin thrower on the UML women’s track and field team who is now an athletic academic coordinator for the River Hawks, is working to change that. Last May, she organized and played on a 3-on-3 women’s basketball team that represented Cambodia at the Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was the first time a Cambodian women’s basketball team competed on the international stage since 1974, before the Khmer Rouge genocide.

“I was proud that we were able to take the floor and compete,” says Suon, who joined the board of the Lowell-based USA-Cambodia Basketball Association in 2019 and started scouring the country for players to field a team for the biennial competition. She eventually found three players on the West Coast and, after just a few practices together in California, they headed to Vietnam for the Games, where they finished 0-6.

“It was challenging, but the bigger purpose here was laying the groundwork for the development of Cambodian women’s basketball,” says Suon, who is now working on recruiting a dozen players for a full 5-on-5 team for the 2023 Southeast Asian Games, which will be held in Cambodia.

Taking part in the opening ceremonies at the Games in Vietnam is something Suon will never forget.

“There’s a lot of pride that goes along with it when you’re out there waving your country’s flag. It lights a fire inside of you, but also gives you chills at the same time,” she says.

A state champion javelin thrower in high school, Suon won America East Conference championships in the event for the River Hawks her junior and senior years. She holds the UML record with a throw of 140 feet, 2 inches. 

After graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Suon earned a master’s degree in sports administration from the University of Miami, where she worked as a graduate assistant with the women’s basketball team. She returned home in 2018 and landed the job at UML.  

Just as sports provided an important outlet in her youth, Suon is grateful to have found her calling through athletics.

“I’m not going to play forever, but a lot of finding my passion and purpose and identity in life has come with trying to figure out how I can still be part of that world — how to use my skills and knowledge and experience to better whatever I’m doing,” she says. “If we can inspire the next round of Cambodian women basketball players to be proud of their heritage, and to aspire to be on a national team and go to college and play, that’s all I can hope for.”