Making an Olympic Debut

Life speaks with four rising Thai stars from three disciplines to gauge their chances of shining at the London Games

For most athletes, reaching the Olympics is an arduous road covered with blood, sweat and tears. And for those making their debut at the world's most anticipated sporting meet, it can be twice as challenging.

Wanida Boonwan will be going to her very first Olympics firing on all cylinders. As a debutant she has nothing to lose but everything to gain.

The London Olympics, held between July 27 and Aug 12, will feature a Thai contingent of 37 athletes in 16 sports.

Two gold medals are expected to be won, with the likely winners coming from taekwondo, weightlifting, boxing and shooting.

Rangsiya Nisaisom (taekwondo), Witthaya Thamwong (archery), Supanara Sukhasvasti na Ayudhaya and Wanida Boonwan (track and field) are making their first Olympic appearances, and each athlete's ultimate goal is clear _ a final round berth, or better still, a shot at a podium finish. Handlers and coaches of the athletics, taekwondo and archery teams have varied opinions on how well they expect their charges to perform.

To help bolster their medal chances at the London Games, the Taekwondo Association of Thailand hired three new Korean coaches earlier this year. Coming on board are assistant coach Kim Jae-woo, fitness specialist Choi Hyu-min and acupuncture expert Lee Hoy-khun, all of whom have teamed up to work with their fellow countryman, head coach Choi Young-seok, who has been credited with Thailand's previous Olympic success.

To support Witthaya's endeavours as Thailand's sole archer in the Olympic Games, the National Archery Association president Sanguan Kosavinta flew their aspiring talent to train and compete in England for two weeks.

He is also under the watchful eyes of top Korean coach Kim Sun-bin, under whose guidance the 25-year-old archer has been showing promise. The biggest setback for Witthaya has been Kim's inability to speak either English or Thai, making the archer rely largely on hand gestures to get the coach's point.

Nevertheless, Witthaya is confident that if he manages to reach the top 16 during the competition, there is an outside chance of him vying for a medal.

For the track and field athletes, even getting this far is an accomplishment. Surapong Ariyamongkol from the Amateur Athletics Association of Thailand said that because of the restraints the association faced, Olympic debutants Supanara and Wanida had achieved a great feat to make it this far.

He said the athletic team's best accomplishment at Olympic level had been a semi-final finish in a track event at the 2000 Sydney Games. Competing against global stars, Southeast Asian runners and jumpers stand little chance of stealing the glory.

Thailand first participated at the Olympic Games in 1952. Some of the Kingdom's best performances leading to a podium finish have come in boxing, weighlifting and taekwondo. In 10 days, the nation will be hoping for more.


Jumping for joy

Supanara Sukhasvasti Na Ayudhaya is looking to get valuable experience from his first Olympic outing.

Track and field champions Supanara Sukhasvasti Na Ayudhaya and Wanida Boonwan are in seventh heaven since securing a berth at the London Olympic Games. Supanara, 20, was given a wild card to compete in men's long jump, while Wanida, 26, gets to duel against the best in the high jump. Both have been with the national athletics team for about five years and have enjoyed a string of successes.

Wanida, who comes from Amnat Charoen province, said qualifying for the Olympics had been a dream come true for a poor girl from a farming background. Standing at 163cm, and facing competitors who will be about 180cm, she has overcome a height disadvantage to reach her athletic dream.

She has demonstrated, time and again, at both local and regional sporting events that she can soar well above her own height, and the height of her competitors.

Whether the fiercely competitive sportswoman can reproduce or exceed her best results in London is yet to be seen, but for the time being her confidence is overflowing.

Wanida explains: ''I will just have to overcome my height disadvantage at the Olympics by focusing on my game plan. In high jump you need high levels of concentration. You need to form a mental picture of your game plan minutes before you actually execute the jump, so I will need to have nerves of steel to keep composed. I am confident that if I can keep my cool, I can reach the finals. And after that anything is possible.

''My current best is a height of 1.92m. If I am able to increase that by another 3cm, it would give me a shot at contesting for a podium finish.''

Standing at 185cm, teammate Supanara said reaching the Olympics _ even with a wild card entry _ had made him excited about competing against the best in the business. His best performance to date was in Kobe, Japan, where he jumped 8.05m.

The part-time model, who already has a world youth championship title under his belt, said his aim for the Olympics was to focus his energy on getting the best results possible.

''Making it to the Olympics has been a goal I had set for myself early this year,'' noted the avid sport enthusiast.

Wanida Boonwan

''I don't want people to say that I blew my chances at the Olympics by not giving it my all. I have dedicated this year to improving my statics, hopefully this will prove instrumental during my performance in London.''

In comparison to Wanida, who is a farmer's daughter, Chiang Mai-born Supanara comes from a privileged background. He was introduced to long jump while studying at a private elementary school. While he admits to not being educationally inclined, he took his passion for sports seriously.

As a teenager, he was coaxed into taking ballroom dancing, which he eventually gave up because he said it wasn't his cup of tea. Supanara, who describes himself as being headstrong and often impulsive, believes it is pivotal to be passionate about what you do to succeed.

After taking up a host of sports, he eventually settled for long jump, which he describes as best suiting his introverted personality.

He explains: ''I have played multiple sports since I was young. However, as most of them were team sports, I found it really annoying to have to wait for the rest of the team members to begin playing. I found long jump a sport tailor-made for me because I could train by myself.''

For Wanida, the path to reach her dreams of becoming a high jump champion was not all roses. As her parents already had many mouths to feed, the aspiring athlete decided to train under a government programme which would cover her board and lodging.

Having shown innate sporting talent from a young age, she was soon recruited by a provincial coach. Through sheer perseverance and determination she made it to the national team. Her parents are proud of her for qualifying.

''My parents were rejoicing when they heard I had made it to the Olympics,'' Wanida said. ''If I am lucky enough to create an upset, I would love to get a medal and use the prize money to bring my family out of poverty.''


Aiming for the bullseye

Navy officer Witthaya Thamwong made sporting history when he became the first national archer in 28 years to qualify for the Olympic Games. His reserved persona reflects a shy young man's struggle with an increasing media spotlight since news broke of his accomplishment.

Archer Witthaya Thamwong has been on a roll since the beginning of the year and hopes to shoot straight at the London Games.

The 25-year-old Lampang-born sportsman was picked for the national team in 2004. He comes from a close-knit lower middle-class farming family and is the younger of two siblings.

Witthaya will compete in the men's individual recurve category in London. He finished at the top of his game at the second and third Asian Archery Grand Prix in Laos and Bangladesh, and he earned his Olympic position by securing a second-place finish at the 17th Asian Archery Championships in Iran.

''I am really glad I was able to qualify for the London Games _ 28 years was a long time for a Thai archer to get there,'' said Witthaya while preparing to train at Huamark stadium.

''This is a golden opportunity for me to put in a good performance. There is no telling what can happen if I can just get to the later rounds.

''It will surely not be an easy feat to get a medal _ but I will do my best all the same. My results this year have been above satisfactory, so this gives me a lot of optimism. If I can only keep my focus there is no telling what I can achieve.''

Witthaya was introduced to archery while studying at the Lampang Sports School. He instantly fell in love with the bow and arrow, describing archery as a dignified and attractive sport.

As a teenager he found it rather cool to train in a discipline with a centuries-old history and so many legends and myths behind it.

Getting as many bullseyes as possible soon became the desire of the up-and-coming archer. His training was meticulous. It took him two months to train to hold a bow. His prowess slowly blossomed under the watchful eyes of coaches, who laid strong foundations for the aspiring athlete.

While it was a gradual process to get his technique in order, he said it gave him personal satisfaction each time his arrow neared the bullseye. His climb to the top came rather rapidly as he won the youth national championship just one year after taking up archery. In the second year, as an 18-year-old, he was already competing in national colours.

Breaking into a lopsided smile, Witthaya said: ''I am really very proud of what I have attained so far, based on the fact that I never dreamed of becoming a national athlete.

''In retrospect, I believe my success was due to my passion for becoming the best in archery. I trained seven days a week on a rigid schedule that left me with little time for anything but sports and studies. Practice does make perfect.''

Witthaya says he draws inspiration from his parents. His father and mother have always shown through example that the fruit of hard labour is always sweet. To celebrate his Olympic debut, they invited neighbours for a simple meal of papaya salad and sticky rice.

''My parents mean the world to me,'' said Witthaya with tears welling in his eyes. ''Whenever I meet them I go on my knees to pay respect to them.

''If it wasn't for them I wouldn't have reached so far in life. I owe all the success I have had to both of them. If I do manage to get a medal, I want to use the money to buy them all the comforts money can bring.''


Kicking up her heels

Taekwondo exponent Rangsiya Nisaisom's goal-orientated and headstrong nature has played a vital role in the milestones she has reached as a national athlete _ the most recent being an Olympic berth at the London Games.

Standing at 168cm, the 18-year-old won the coveted spot for Thailand at the Asian qualifying tournament in Bangkok in November last year, six months after she won the country's first taekwondo world title in South Korea.

Taekwondo talent Rangsiya Nisaisom is pinning her hopes on a podium finish.

The lanky talent, who has been with the senior national team for two years, is slated to compete in the women's 57kg division. Her cool and collected demeanour belies a confidence far beyond her age. She draws inspiration from her parents, who she says have devoted their time, energy and finances to supporting her sporting endeavour.

Rangsiya offers them the credit for her current success, saying: ''I wouldn't have reached so far without their love and support. Qualifying for the Olympics has made my parents very happy.

''All the hard work they put into seeing me accomplish my aim as an athlete has paid off. I have put my heart and soul into my training in the hopes of a podium finish. To do this I must be at the top of my game and keep focused.

''With the undivided support of both my family and national coaches I am confident I will be able to accomplish this milestone as well.''

Rangsiya, who is also a second-year business administration student at Kasetsart University, spoke at length about her fascination with the martial art sport and how mastering it has made her into a more disciplined and responsible person.

''Since I was a child I found taekwondo a cool sport,'' Rangsiya enthused. ''I was barely 11 when I begged my mother for permission to learn taekwondo after watching a school friend, dressed smartly in taekwondo gear, show off medals she had won at a tournament.

''At first my mother refused, but after crying my eyes dry for weeks, she gave in and allowed me to join a programme. I enjoyed it immensely and began to win tournaments.

''Physically I had also become stronger, and the sport was all I had expected it would be. My two years in the national youth team was loads of fun.

''I never expected to reach the national team. However, as I began to compete more frequently and win I started to get noticed by national coaches on the lookout for fresh talent. It was not exactly smooth sailing when I made it to the senior team. Training was far more exhausting then I had expected.

''I had to work exceptionally hard to prove my abilities. In retrospect, it was all worth it.''

From personal experience, the Chon Buri native says playing sports is a great way to not just keep physically fit but also emotionally fit. She advises young adults who suffer from low self-esteem and confidence to take up a sport to experience self-worth and make new friends. As we live in a society where young people are easily lured into bad company and vices, she suggests sport could be a means to channel a young person's energy in a constructive manner.

Rangsiya says there is no telling what human beings are capable of once they put their minds to accomplishing something _ being an Olympic qualifier could be one of many options awaiting them.

About the author

Writer: Yvonne Bohwongprasert
Position: Senior writer