A PLME student swims in the Olympics.
By the time Sovijja Pou ’17 MD’21 was accepted into the Program in Liberal Medical Education (PLME), he had made the difficult decision to end the competitive swimming career he had pursued since age 5. With the daunting prospect of juggling athletics and academics in college, the dual citizen of Cambodia and the US planned instead to focus his energy in the classroom.
But after finishing his final high school swimming season strong and representing Cambodia at the 2013 FINA World Championships in Spain, he knew he wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel. “I loved practicing and I loved competing,” Pou says.
That decision proved wise. Not only has Pou consistently been one of Brown’s top swimmers, he was one of just two swimmers representing Cambodia in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He competed in the 100-meter freestyle competition August 9.
“It was such an unforgettable and indescribable experience to be able to represent Cambodia internationally,” Pou says. “I went into the Olympics without knowing what to expect and came back with a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.”
Brown swimming coach Chris Ip says Pou epitomizes the amateur athlete ideal, balancing sports with his other responsibilities and interests. During the academic year, Pou spends 20 hours a week in the pool, yet maintains a stellar grade point average as a biology and applied math concentrator. While many athletes might focus solely on preparing for the Olympics, Pou trained this summer while also pursuing a full-time summer research project with Daniel Weinreich, PhD, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, on the evolution of drug-resistant malaria.
“Sovijja is … not sacrificing any of his other goals,” Ip says. “It’s a pleasure to work with someone who has that balance—he wants to excel [in swimming]but not to the point where it’s overtaking his whole life.”
Pou, whose father is Cambodian and whose mother is Thai, says his passion for both swimming and academics are fueled by his Cambodian heritage. During the Khmer Rouge genocide, his father sought refuge in the US, ultimately landing in Portland, OR, where Pou grew up.
After medical school, Pou plans to practice in Cambodia, concentrating his efforts on fighting tropical diseases like malaria, which has impacted many of his family members who live in rural areas. Already, Pou has given back to the country. He travels there frequently, teaching English at his grandfather’s monastery, advocating for the importance of oral hygiene and safe sex, and giving public swimming lessons to children in Phnom Penh.