Karen Sullam's journey began with the glimpse of a lacrosse stick on a train platform in Switzerland.
In Bern while completing post-doctoral work in environmental science, Sullam wondered at the sight of one of the enduring symbols of her hometown in the Swiss capital. She had played a few years on Bryn Mawr's junior varsity, so she was determined to learn the story behind that stick and the young woman carrying it.
Sullam never dreamed that stick would lead her — a little more than year later — to a starting midfield spot on Switzerland's national team and a trip to the ELF Women's Lacrosse European Championship, hosted by the European Lacrosse Federation beginning today in Nymburk, Czech Republic.
"If you had told me when I was at Bryn Mawr that this would happen, I don't think I could have believed it," Sullam said with a laugh. "Maybe if I had known, I would have made more of an effort to play in college, because I look back and I should have sought it out in college. I didn't even think about playing."
She wasn't thinking about playing after spotting that stick either.
"I just got really excited and not, 'Oh, I want to play.' That didn't go through my head," she said. "It was just, 'Whoa, what's that doing here? That's so interesting that someone plays here.'"
Sullam didn't catch up to Joy Marxer that day in March 2014, but she kept an eye out for her and less than a week later, she spotted Marxer waiting for the train again with her lacrosse stick. Finding a seat across from Marxer on the way to Basel, Sullam struck up a conversation.
Marxer, who played for the Bern club team and is captain of the Swiss national team, needed only about two minutes to start recruiting, Sullam said.
"She was like, 'You know this sport. You've played before,' and I could see her eyes lighting up," Sullam said. "Then she suggested I come to their practice and think about joining the team."
Sullam, 31, hadn't played lacrosse since her junior year at Bryn Mawr 12 years earlier. She played on the varsity field hockey team and played that sport for a year at Hamilton College.
"It took me a little while to get back into [lacrosse]," she said. "The feel for the game, I think when you get that when you're younger it's much easier than someone who's just starting from nothing as an older player, so it felt pretty good. But since joining the national team, I've had to do a lot of wall ball."
Initially, Sullam just wanted to expand her social circle, get some exercise and work on her German.
With her high school experience, however, her skill level stood out on the Bern team, one of six women's club teams in Switzerland.
Marxer, a six-year veteran of the sport, was thrilled to have an experienced player for the Bern team she had helped found a year earlier. Most of her teammates had only played for a year or two.
"She always said she isn't that good and that she hasn't played for ages," Marxer said of Sullam in an email. "I then told her that if she wasn't good in the U.S. that this was still a lot better than what we can do here. … When I first saw her play, I was really surprised. … It seemed very natural to her to play lacrosse and I think she was happy to be able to play lacrosse again."
A few months after Sullam joined the Bern team, she and all the other Swiss club players received emails about national team tryouts.
She was intrigued, but not being Swiss, she figured she couldn't try out. However, the team was allowed three non-nationals and she was eligible because she had lived there for two years, including 10 months on a Fulbright fellowship studying at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Dubendorf.
"I was really excited to represent my new home, at least for now," said Sullam, one of 30 players who tried out for 18 spots on the national team which finished 11th out of 12 teams in the last European championship.
"It's been great and it's such a small lacrosse community. In Baltimore, it feels small, but [in Switzerland] it's really small. You really know every player or everyone looks familiar and being on the national team with players from the different [club] teams, it's been great getting to know them."
Swiss national team coach Hazel Wisbey, a veteran English player, said Sullam's fitness level wasn't up to par and her skills were a bit rusty when they first met for a national team training weekend in December, but the Baltimorean stood out with her field sense and understanding of the game. Since then, Wisbey said, Sullam has developed into a solid two-way midfielder.
"It is quite clear that Karen learned to play lacrosse in the States — her technique is very different to mainland European players," Wisbey said via email. "For example, her defensive stance is something that stands out, she plays stick up style whilst mainland Europeans tend to learn the shopping cart stance. She is also skilled at playing under pressure and very good at anticipating play."
Sullam plans to keep playing lacrosse as long as she's in Switzerland, which might be her new home long term. She fell in love with the alpine nation during a two-week summer program as a second-year doctoral student in 2009.
Researching a field of environmental science she calls evolutionary biology, Sullam is studying how animals interact with the bacteria that live in and on them to better understand how that affects how they function and evolve. She focused on fish for her PhD and now she's working with small fresh-water crustaceans.
The Fulbright fellowship took her back to Switzerland for the 2011-12 school year when she met her boyfriend Diego Dagani, also a scientist who now works for the Federal Office of the Environment.
When she returned to Drexel University in June 2012, she said she convinced her advisers that she could finish writing her dissertation in Switzerland. She has been in Bern with Dagani, a Swiss native, since February 2013.
The couple spent three weeks in the United States this spring, and Sullam said they've talked about coming back for a while after her job contract expires next year. But she said she likes the quality of life in Switzerland and the hiking and skiing, so they may have a future there — one that certainly includes lacrosse.
"It would be great to be involved as long as I can be," Sullam said. "For me, I had a community through work and I knew people through Diego and his friends, but this has really enabled me to have my own community of friends and support. And even if I stop playing lacrosse, I think friendships and connections would be maintained, but it would be great to maintain them while still playing lacrosse."