A true champion

A hardscrabble childhood propelled Sudaporn Seesondee to Olympic glory and the means to help her family out of poverty

Ireland's Kellie Anne Harrington, red, and Thailand's Sudaporn Seesondee during a semi-final match at Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. UESLEI MARCELINO

Olympic gold medallist Somluck Kamsing's rags to riches legacy played a pivotal role in keeping boxer Sudaporn Seesondee determined to follow in his footsteps. She spent 12 years preparing herself to clinch the coveted bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and creating history by becoming the first Thai woman to win an Olympic medal.

While a podium finish in the women's 60kg boxing division has ushered in well-deserved prize money and recognition for the 29-year-old, it hasn't made the Udon Thani native forget her humble beginnings in rural northeastern Thailand where her parents once worked as farmhands.

"I grew up in a state of extreme poverty," remarked the Olympian. "Financially, we had so little that it was just enough for rice and fish sauce to season our meals. Our house was more like a shack because when it rained, the roof constantly leaked. It was equipped with very little to actually call it home.

"My school shoes were also in such poor condition that my mother had to sew them. They tore often because I had to walk a long distance to reach school. While living in poverty weighed heavy on my small shoulders, I knew I could not lead a defeated existence if I was to ever get out of it. Even though the future looked dim for me at first, I used to dream that I would be able to provide a good life for my family."

Sudaporn was first introduced to muay Thai when her father began a boxing camp for children in their village. She loved the martial arts aspect and soon after began training for fights.

Sudaporn Seesondee.

"I was bullied often so I found muay Thai gave me what I needed to protect myself when the ragging became physical," she said. "I was 11 years old when I won 500 baht for my first fight and that began my journey which has led to my present success."

Sudaporn knew right off the bat that muay Thai and later amateur boxing was her ticket out of poverty. Her boxing prowess got her noticed quickly as at age 16 she was recruited to Thailand's national boxing team. Two years later, she won a gold medal at the SEA Games in 2011. Sudaporn has had a good run of form at the Asian Games, Women's Amateur Boxing, and World Championships, where she has had several podium finishes.

"Out of all the milestones I have enjoyed as a national boxer, becoming the first Thai woman boxer to win an Olympic medal is definitely the top. It gives me an adrenaline boost because it took a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to achieve it."

As to how she plans to use her prize money, the national boxer, who has a bachelor's degree in physical education, said: "I will spend the [8 million baht and counting] prize money for my bronze Olympic medal very frugally.

"I have used part of the money to renovate my family home so it is more livable. I also plan to buy land for my mother. Boxing has given me a lot to be thankful for and at my age, I don't have too long before I retire. I do hope to get one last shot at the Olympic gold medal in Paris. I am not overly confident but I will do my best to keep fit to make it happen."

Coming this far hasn't been without its obstacles and one that caught her on the back foot was Covid-19 and the uncertainty of the 2020 Olympics happening. Despite this, she said, the entire national women's boxing team kept a positive mindset and trained with enthusiasm to win.

Boxer Sudaporn Seesondee carries the Thai flag during the closing ceremony.

"Looking back, the encampment period was a prolonged one with no assurances of the fact that we would be competing. We had no time to feel depressed over this as the coaching team kept us focused. Don't get me wrong, it was not all work as they also arranged for us to have a lot of fun while we trained. Hats off to them for driving us to excellence.

"Despite no warm-up matches abroad to determine what level we were at, our team improvised by training with the Philippines national team that was here for a training stint. Coaches held impromptu competitions for us to test our abilities.

"The training plan for us was well rounded so we were ready to compete at any time. That is why when it was confirmed that the Olympics would indeed be held, we were good to go."

As Sudaporn was making her Olympic debut, she said her goal was to get as close to the gold medal round as possible. She admits to feeling a tinge of regret when she had to settle for third place.

"My entire life has been about boxing. As a kid, I loved being in the training camp, competing with boys who treated me like I was one of them. I studied the techniques and boxed with a lot of passion. Qualifying for the Olympics was such a confidence boost for me after having a run of success in regional and global events. Each match leading up to the bronze medal will be etched in my mind."

As for takeaways from the Olympic experience, she said Thai female boxers need to work harder on building their muscle mass to get better results at the next Olympics in Paris. Building self-confidence is another area that can be worked on.

Sudaporn said for athletes to succeed in life, they needed role models to follow.

It was during her days at the sports academy in Khon Kaen that she first heard of legendary Olympian Somluck Kamsing's heroics, which sparked a desire in her to follow in his footsteps.

"What really struck a chord in me was the fact that Somluck and I have a lot in common. We both come from impoverished backgrounds and started our careers in muay Thai and later developed our prowess in amateur boxing. It was the Olympic gold medal that changed his life, bringing him fame and fortune. Having him as a role model has helped me overcome numerous obstacles, one of which was becoming the sole breadwinner of the family in my early teens.

"At a very early age, I had to also fend for myself. I worked weekends as a farmhand to have money for school. Whenever there were muay Thai fights in our village, I used to compete in the hope that I could use the prize money to provide for my family. Later I worked as a sparring partner for members of a popular boxing club. I used to get 4,000 baht monthly, out of that I kept 1,000 for myself and spent the rest on my family. Just as Somluck, competing at the Olympics has opened the opportunity for me to improve my life from a nobody to a somebody."

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