Ratchanok Inthanon, 17
Successes: THREE TIMES World Youth Champion
How did you start playing badminton?
I started when I was about 6. My parents worked at the Banthongyod dessert factory. Afraid that I and the other kids would bother the workers and hurt ourselves on the machines, Aunt Puk, Kamala Thongkorn, the owner of the factory and now the director of the Banthongyod badminton school, took us to play badminton at the court next door. At the age of about 7 I became more devoted to the sport and I first made the national team when I was 14. I felt a little uncomfortable living with the seniors at first, but they taught me a lot and really encouraged me to follow my dream.
Who is your idol?
My idol is the Chinese badminton player Wang Yihan, who is the world’s top-ranked women’s singles player right now. In addition to her great strength, she’s very hard working and has a never-say-die attitude.
What’s your life like as an athlete?
It’s tough. I practice six hours a day and play lots of matches. As I miss school quite a lot, I have to work really hard to keep up with my classmates. It’s exhausting sometimes. And I don’t have time to hang out with my friends, as other teenagers do. But I understand that it’s what I must do if I want to succeed as an athlete.
What do you hope to achieve at the Olympics?
I want to win at least a medal, any medal, in the women’s singles. The first thing I want to do if I win gold is thank all the people who’ve supported me—Aunt Puk, the Badminton Association of Thailand, SCG and all the seniors in the national team. As for the medal, I would give it to my parents for safekeeping.
What are your future plans?
I don’t think too much about my studies. I’m more focused on badminton right now. I want to play for as long as possible. Normally, badminton players compete until the age of 25-26. But you can go for longer if you stay fit. In the future, I want to be a coach of the national team.
What more could be done to help Thailand’s Badminton players?
We lack good physical therapists. When an athlete gets injured, it’s up to them and the coach to take care of getting better.
Pen-ake Karakate, 22
Successes: Gold medal at The World qualification Event for the 2012 London Olympics
How did you get started in taekwondo?
I took a taekwondo course at my school when I was 9. My performance was outstanding, so the teachers chose to give me exclusive lessons. I was selected for the national team when I was 15. I was the youngest national taekwondo player at the time.
Who do you think will be your most challenging rival at the upcoming Olympics?
Every competitor will be equally challenging. If I’m to win a gold medal, I have to beat them all, so there’s no point in thinking about who’s the most talented. The most difficult thing about being an athlete is that you never know the outcome. In addition to our own actions, success is also a matter of timing and chance.
What has changed in Thai taekwondo over the past few years?
Kids these days are not as passionate as people of my generation who’ve had to go through a lot before reaching this point. Nowadays distractions are everywhere, meaning young athletes are not as focused on their sport as they should be.
How long do you plan on turning out for the national team?
I’ll leave when there’s someone more talented and devoted to replace me. I want to motivate younger people and challenge them to surpass me, because that’s what got me here today. It’s what life is all about—fighting for what you want.
How can we improve the standard of Thai taekwondo?
We need to improve our sports science personnel to take better care of our athletes. In addition, the welfare for retired athletes is not enough. Most athletes don’t succeed and don’t have any other career to fall back on. What it comes down to is an improved budget for sport.
Who is your idol?
This may sound odd but my idol is Wijarn Polrit, the boxer. I saw how sweet victory can be when he won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Since then, my greatest motivation has been to win an Olympic gold medal.
Sutiya Jiewchaloemmit, 26
Sport: Skeet Shooting
Successes: Ranked 3RD in the world in 2009
What made you want to become a shooter?
My aunt was a renowned shooter, Bang-orn, aka Supornpun Jiewchaloemmit. When I was 15, I visited the shooting range with her and she encouraged me to give it a try. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But when I saw people preparing to compete at the SEA Games in 2001, I realized I wanted to be a part of it. The next year I went to China to practice and I made the national team the year after. I won gold and set new records at the SEA Games in both 2005 and in 2007.
Did you ever dream of competing at the Olympics?
I’ve always wanted to be the best at the international level. When I met my German coach at the Skeet and Trap Shooting Association of Thailand (STSA), I told him that I wanted to go to the Olympics. He laughed at first, but he eventually gave me a chance, even though he knew that I had no financial support. He told me it wouldn’t be easy, but I said I would do whatever it takes.
What are the biggest obstacles you have had to face?
Thai shooters have no sponsors, no financial support, no gun supplies and no professional trainers like other countries. That means we have to work harder than others. In other countries, it’s like they give you a boat and you just have to follow the stream, but I feel like I have to swim across the ocean on my own. My parents paid a huge amount of money for me to train in Germany. I asked for support from the STSA but I was rejected. But after I secured a place at the 2008 Olympics, I was lucky that Singha [headed by Jamnong Bhirompakdi, a former shooter] heard about my story and supported all my expenses.
What are your hopes for the upcoming Olympics?
To be honest, I want a gold medal. Some people say I’m too confident but that’s how I am. It’s natural to expect the best. I’m not here just for the experience anymore. I’m 26 now and I’m in it to win. If I claim a gold medal, I would thank each and every person who has believed in me.
What has been the best moment of your sporting life?
It was when I got a quota place to go to the games. Everyone said that I’m nuts and I can’t do it because nobody in Thailand had ever done this before. It felt like a real breakthrough.
What are your plans for after the Olympics?
I haven’t really thought about the future. Right now, I just want to win and keep competing. Today I’m ranked 5th in the world. I’ve been in world’s top 10 for 4-5 years. I once got to number 3 in the world in 2009, but I’ve since had some back injuries. I still believe that I can become number one. I hope that if Thai people start showing more interest in skeet shooting, one day I can own a shooting range, and I’d like to coach youngsters when I’m older.
Napalai Tarnsai, 30
Successes: silver medal at 2011 SEA games
How did you get started windsurfing?
My parents know Amara Wijithong, a former national windsurfer. So, they decided that my older brother and I should try the sport out, too. I was 15 then. At that stage, I didn’t like windsurfing at all, but I went along with what my parents said. After a while, I came to enjoy it more and more.
What are the main challenges of windsurfing?
It’s very physically demanding. Practice is tough. I exercise six days a week, mostly running and cycling. But what’s really exhausting is the nature of the sport itself. Windsurfing means being exposed to the scorching sun. The wind and the sea can also be dangerous. When windsurfers go abroad for competitions, we have to be there about a month in advance so that we can adjust ourselves and our techniques to the local conditions. The athletes from the host country have a real advantage in that regard. What makes one willing to wrestle with these difficulties is nothing but love for the sport.
Who is your idol?
Lee Lai Shan. She’s a former World Champion and Olympic gold medal-winning professional windsurfer from Hong Kong. What makes her special is that she beat the European windsurfers. It’s a great success because Western athletes usually look down on Asian athletes. She has shown the world how talented Asians are.
What are your goals for the London Olympics and beyond?
I’ll try my best to exceed my own record from the 2008 Olympics, where I finished 20th. After London, there are three major tournaments to prepare for: the SEA Games 2013, Asian Games 2014 and Beach Games 2014. I aim to keep improving with every event.
What support do Thai windsurfers need?
Windsurfing is a costly endeavor when you factor in all the equipment, coaching and practicing. If we were to get more financial support, then we could build a talented new generation of Thai windsurfers.
Wittaya Thamwong, 25
Successes: First Thai archer to reach the Olympics
What drew you to archery?
When I was in high school, I had no real idea of what to try. So, I followed my cousin who was studying archery, even though I knew nothing about it. I had no skills but passed the physical test so I got in. The National Archery Association of Thailand noticed my potential, trained me, and recruited me to the national team when I was 18, becoming the youngest on the team. This will be my first Olympic Games.
What characteristics are needed to succeed in archery?
It requires a stable state, both physically and mentally. You need total concentration when taking aim and shooting. Having competed in archery for a while now, it’s obvious how it’s helped me become calmer and have more self-control.
What are your goals for the 2012 Olympics?
Many Asian countries are good at archery, especially South Korea and Malaysia, while the Thai team is considered to be a bit behind. However, anything is possible in archery. There are times when unheralded teams defeat more illustrious opponents. So, by doing my very best, I hope to at least claim a medal.
If you won gold, what would you do with the prize?
I’d give the money to my mom. And I’d donate some of it to talented youngsters. Too many kids don’t have a proper chance of being an athlete because they lack financial support. I want to help them achieve their dreams and improve the state of sport in Thailand.
What are your plans after retiring from archery?
I’m already in the navy. After retiring at around 30 or so, I’ll continue my naval career. However, I won’t completely give up archery. I’ll still shoot with a compound bow which doesn’t require as much physical strength. Also, I’d like to be an archery coach. The sport is much more popular now than when I first started competing. Parents are seeing our archery athletes becoming more successful, so they are encouraging their children to try it.
Are you interested in any other sports?
I’ve always wanted to try shooting a gun. I think it would require similar skills as archery—concentration and accuracy.
Nanthana Kamwong, 31
Sport: Table Tennis
Successes: third olympic games
When did you start playing table tennis?
I’ve played table tennis since I was in grade 8 back in Lampang after a school competition inspired me to take up the sport. I used to push two school lunch tables together and use them like a real ping pong table.
How did you come to join the national team?
From small competitions, I worked my way up to the regional and national levels. I was either winning or finishing second, so the director of the Sport for Excellence Department asked my parents whether I was willing to relocate to Bangkok to practice as part of the national team. As first, my parents said I was too young, but they later allowed me to move when I was 15.
What has been the best moment of your sporting life?
When I realized that I will have participated at three separate Olympic Games. That means a lot to me because I get to meet many of the world’s greatest athletes. I once beat the world’s 12th-ranked table tennis player. That was a big highlight.
What do you hope to achieve at the upcoming Olympics?
I want to reach the final round. I didn’t expect to come this far, especially because I’m 31 now, which is pretty old for a table tennis player. This is likely my last Olympics, so I have to make the most of my opportunity. I’ll do my best and if I win a medal, I’ll give it to my parents and donate the prize money to charity.
What are your plans beyond the Olympics?
I’d like to be a coach because I want to help bring up the new generation of table tennis players. I’m currently teaching students at Chulalongkorn University.
Have you had to sacrifice much to get where you are?
As a teenager, I would get frustrated that I couldn’t hang out with my friends like others my age. But then I realized that table tennis is my life. Everything I’ve achieved I owe to table tennis. I have friends who understand my situation, so now I’m happy.
Who is your idol?
My idol is Jan-Ove Waldner, a top Swedish table tennis player. I like the way he can take control of the ball. He’s a genius.
Kaew Pongprayoon, 32
Sport: light flyweight boxeR
Successes: gold medal in 2011 AZBA World Boxing Championship
How did you start as a boxer?
I started out mainly doing Thai boxing. At a sports day during high school, I participated in the boxing competition, where I was introduced to the international-style sport. One of my teachers saw talent in me, and decided to send me to a higher level competition. After I won, I became my province’s, Kamphaeng Phet, main boxer, and got to compete in many more bouts until I became a national team member.
What’s your training routine like?
I work out almost every day to stay in shape and prepare to compete. Some days are harder than others. Sometimes I feel bored and lazy, but I tell myself those feelings are just in my head. I know what I’ve got to do, and I always do my best.
What are your goals for this Olympics?
This will be my first Olympics, and I am more than excited just to be there. It will be my last time, too, because I will be over the age limit by the time of the next Games.
What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced?
Right now, the Thai Boxing Association isn’t in too good a shape. There have been fewer events, and I haven’t faced a new competitor for about 7 months now, making it difficult for me to improve. In order to become a better boxer, I need to fight different boxers with different tactics. However, all I can do right now is hope for the best, no matter what happens. My goal is to be placed in the top three at the games.
What will you do after retiring from the national team?
I hope to become a boxing coach one day, but if that doesn’t work out I will go back to my day job as a soldier. Ultimately, I want to make enough money so that my family and I can lead comfortable lives.
Who is your favorite boxer?
Manny Pacquiao [from the Philippines] is my favorite. I think he’s a great boxer, who is not only strong but fights in an aggressive and exciting way.