History beckons for favourite taekwondo exponent Panipak
Five years after her "heartbreaking" finish at Rio where she settled for bronze, taekwondo exponent Panipak Wongpattanakit gets another chance to win a historic gold medal for Thailand on Saturday.
While a bronze medal is too good to be true for most athletes from the Kingdom, it was not enough for the then teenage warrior who had been tipped to claim the top prize at the 2016 Games.
Panipak, now 23, almost quit after returning home from her Olympic debut.
The Surat Thani native, under the guidance of national coach Choi Young-Seok, was so disheartened by her failure to win gold that she turned her back on the sport for two months.
"I had a really good chance in Rio but in a fraction of a second, I blew it. I was so disappointed and I told my coach I did not want to keep going. But after two months, I really missed taekwondo and resumed training," Panipak said.
Now a better fighter with more experience, the 2015 and 2019 world champion is favourite in the women's 49kg division and considered the country's best bet for gold at Tokyo.
As the top-ranked star in the category, the reigning Asian Games champion will walk into Makuhari Messe Convention Centre as the woman to beat.
However, the six-time World Grand Prix gold medallist shows no sign of buckling under the huge weight of expectation she is shouldering.
"People think that I have a high chance of winning gold but I don't feel under pressure from their expectations," said Panipak, who is nicknamed "Tennis".
"I'm handling all the pressure comfortably. I try to enjoy the game in every match and don't underestimate opponents.
"To me, everything from the competition, the opponents and my coach is the same as usual. Although I am the number one, I start each bout with a score of zero like everybody else. There is nothing new."
If she goes all the way in Tokyo, she will become Thailand's first champion of the 2020 Games and first Olympic gold medallist in taekwondo.
Thailand so far have won Olympic golds in only two sports -- weightlifting (five) and boxing (four).
Though some experts pick South Korea's Sim Jae-Young over Panipak in the race for gold, the Thai camp is not worried about this.
Her handlers believe Taiwan's Su Po-ya looks more dangerous than Sim.
Former world champion Chutchawal Khawlaor, now a member of the national team's coaching staff, said Sim is the best in the 46kg division but has lost to Panipak twice in the 49kg class.
Sim and Su are expected to meet in the quarter-finals in Tokyo with the winner slated to face Panipak in the semi-finals.
"Su is good and tall and I think it is difficult for Sim to get past her," said Chatchawal. "I believe she is Panipak's most dangerous opponent in Tokyo."
The Tokyo Games is being held without spectators and Choi sees this as an advantage for his two athletes -- the other being Ramnarong Sawekwiharee in the men's 58kg.
"The competition venue is quite big and it would be very noisy with spectators," Choi, who has been Thailand's head coach since 2002.
"Without fans, our athletes will become less nervous and be able to concentrate better."
The South Korean coach's ultimate dream is to produce a Thai Olympic champion, and his long wait may end today.
Pimol Srivikorn, president of the Taekwondo Association of Thailand, is confident that the wait will be over in Tokyo. "It's time for us to win an Olympic gold medal," he said.
Ramnarong, who is seen as a dark horse in the men's 58kg, will also be in action today.