Sonthana Thongsithavong, Springfield's Local Luminary
Sonthana Thongsithavong's day to day can be described with one word — busy. As of two months ago, Sonthana is not only the president of the Central Illinois Tennis Association, he's now also the Recreational Tennis Manager for the Springfield, Illinois Park District.
Then it might be a surprise to learn that Sonthana, a 'round-the-clock tennis advocate and instructor, got a late start in tennis.
Before his senior year in high school, Sonthana never competed in a single match.
So how'd he get interested?
He played a little as a kid with his brother and sister, but when he got older, he began playing lots of sports. He played soccer year-round, but then grew tired and needed something new. He asked one of his high school athletic coaches if he could play tennis. It was a big ask considering the school didn't have a tennis team. "The coach told me, 'If you want a team, you’re gonna have to recruit some more players.'" They needed six students to make a team, and Sonthana found eight. When the season began, things were a little rocky. "It was a little reality check there. I just got zero and zero... Zero and zero… That actually motivated me because I was such a competitive person," Sonthana says. "I’d think, if this player can hit like that with time and dedication, then so can I... Since then, I don't think I've gone 21 years without holding a racquet."
Before tennis became Sonthana's full-time career, he spent 13 years helping children of all ages and abilities through service — something Sonthana is deeply passionate about because of his childhood.
"I was a refugee," Sonthana shares.
Sonthana came to the United States when he was nine years old. He was born in Laos during the Vietnam War. "We left the country in ’87 and lived in a refugee camp for two years." Then a chuch in Illinois sponsored Sonthana's family. "It’s actually Abraham Lincoln’s church."
When Sonthana and his six siblings were growing up in the United States, they all played sports, and during that time there were some pretty popular American tennis players they looked up to, including Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras.
Sonthana decided, he wanted to make a difference.
"I wanted to give back because of how I grew up," he says. Sonthana thought coaching tennis could be good a way to get involved. So he applied for a coaching job at Rochester High School. "I said, 'I don’t know much about tennis… I played for one year in high school and I play now, but if you want to take a shot with me, you could hire me.' Sixteen years later, I’m still coaching high school."
Sonthana also began playing USTA League tennis and spent a year coaching a college team. He founded a CTA about five years ago, while he simultaneously developed a relationship with the USTA/Midwest Section to grow educational and play opportunities for young tennis players.
"A lot of people see tennis as an elite sport that you have to have money to play. I want to show the youth and the families that you don’t need money to do what you love," Sonthana says. "With me growing up and having nothing, I want to use my platform as a tennis coach to show, if I can do it, anyone can." Sonthana feels strongly that sport can make a positive impact in children's lives. With his new role as Recreational Tennis Manager for Springfield Park District, he's excited to bring back USTA programming at the park. "I’m excited to see kids out there again. I’m excited to see players out there on the court."
Sonthana has a family of his own now. He has four children and the oldest is competing in tennis tournaments.
At 13, 11, and nine years old (twins) the kids enjoy traveling with their mom and dad, hitting up historic landmarks around the country. They're also big Cubs fans — catching five or six games at Wrigleyville a year.
"We’ve also got two restaurants in town," Sonthana says. He remembers the restaurant his family ran growing up, where he used to wash dishes and help out.
When he was 11 years old, helping out in his family's restaurant, it felt more like a lifestyle than work. Now he imagines his daughter views tennis the same way. "I think she sees it as, just another thing we do in our lives, and I don’t really push it... As a coach and as parents, I think… we can push our kids to a certain point, but we have to find a way to get a clue [and see] if they’re burned out or not having fun anymore. Then you can kind of sit back a little bit," Sonthana says. "If they love the game of tennis, they’re going to come back to it."
As Sonthana's children get older, he continues teaching them about tennis and their Lao heritage. "When you have kids here that didn’t go through what you went through, you have them appreciate things and do things to help... because in the back of our minds, there was something that helped us when we got to the United States. We were that family that was on food stamps for two or three years," Sonthana remembers. "Kids now can realize that little things do help."
"I think the country of Laos… It’s almost like a forgotten country," Sonthana shares. Laos in Southeast Asia was colonized by the French and played a huge role in the Vietnam War. "It was being used by both sides," Sonthana explains. "When the conflict ended, Laos was left all alone… and Laos has always been like that. It always comes back, and develops, and people go about their lives. So you notice a lot of Laotian personalities, we all say, ‘It will be okay.’ That’s kind of how the country feels."
Sonthana says, more people are visiting Laos nowadays as tourists, but there are still remnants of the war on land including bombs. "This has been documented," Sonthana explains. Global news sources call Laos the most bombed country in the world with many of them still active on land in northern parts of the country. Sonthana shares heartbreaking stories of children who have died in Laos while playing outside. "You’ve got sticks. You dig up stuff. You see this metal thing and you think it’s a toy... That could have been me. What those kids are doing, I was doing."
"Laos was the most bombed country... but if you talk to a majority of Laotians, we’re not angry… We’re going to deal with it… Everyone’s willing to help." That included Sonthana's parents. Both his dad and mom were medics in the Vietnam War.
Doing the right thing has always been important to Sonthana, and it's important in tennis he says. "In the long-run, something good will happen, or you’ll figure something out."
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