Thailand’s taekwondo Olympic medallists Yaowapa Boorapolchai, who picked up the bronze in Greece and Buttree Puedpong, who won the silver in Beijing, both threw in the towel after their Olympics achievements. London heroine Chanatip Sonkham has a very different view. She’s still determined to reach the top step on the podium, a place that no Thai taekwando exponent has ever stood.
The 21-year-old fighter had the crowds back home in Phatthalung cheering as she became the first athlete from the province to compete in the Games and bring home a medal.
She returned home to fame and prosperity, with incentive money and financial rewards pouring in from both the public and private sectors and recognition from fans wherever she goes. But Lek, as the youngest of the three kids in the Sonkham family is known, has managed to keep her feet firmly on earth though she admits she’s grateful for the security provided by her growing bank account.
“I’m still enjoying the competition so retirement is definitely not in my agenda. However, I must take good care of my body and make sure that I stay injury free for the next four years,’’ says the bronze medallist who’s determined to become to first taekwondo athlete from Thailand to enter back-to-back Olympics.
“Of course, the decision is up to my coach [Choi Young-seok] because only the best athletes will be selected for the national team. Personally I want to give it another try and the gold is what I have in mind,’’ says Chanatip, who is looking forward to making amends for what she regards as her shameless loss in London to three-time world champion Brigitte Enrique Yague of Spain.
Competing in the under-49 kg division, Chanatip looked to be cruising over the 31-year-old opponent with a huge lead at 9-3 in the semi-final with less than a minute to time. With the whole nation ready to celebrate her victory, the young fighter went off guard for a split second, opening a loophole for Yague to launch a series of raids and turn the situation around in the last minute.
Instead of burying herself in the agony of that shock defeat, Chanatip fought back, outclassing Elizabeth Gordillo of Guatemala 8-0 to win the bronze medal match.
“That’s one of the reasons why I want to compete in the Olympics again. I came so close in London and I want to go a step further in Brazil.”
Yet the bronze is not bad for this dark-horse athlete from the south. With the nation’s expectations on the shoulders of teammate Pen-ek Karakate, Chanatip made the trip to London in the shadows but returned as the new toast of the town along with silver medallists boxer Keao Pongprayoon and weightlifter Pimsiri Sirikaew.
“I didn’t expect such a huge welcome or the recognition that has come so fast. But I really feel that all my hard work has paid off,” says Chanathip, who eight years was hesitating between tennis and taekwondo as a way of strengthening her slender body.
“I decided to go for taekwondo because the uniform looked cool. Who would ever have imagined that it would one day change my entire life!”
The martial arts didn’t just firm up the weak preteen but eventually landed her a place on the national team.
As the practice partner for 2008 Olympics silver medallist Buttree, Chanatip was determined to be part of the team for the next games in London. She was recruited for the senior team at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games where she won the bronze.
Before her trip to the English capital, Chanathip said she wanted to clear all her parent’s debts including the mortgage on the house and the car loan, which totalled around Bt3 million. The incentives and rewards received following her win are estimated at around Bt10 million and thus more than adequate to help the family.
“I’m a person of my word. I promised my parents I would help and I will do it. Once I’m done with all the post Olympics activities, I will make a summary of all money I’ve received and I will clear everything,’’ says Chanathip, who last week was offered Bt1.2 million by the Government Housing Bank, which she used to buy a condo in Bangkok.
She already has some presents for the family from London – an Armani watch for her dad and fancy bags for her mum and sister.
“I actually bought the watch for myself as a reward. I sent the picture of it to my dad and he asked if he could have it. My dad loves wristwatches.”
Chanatip doesn’t have a significant someone in her life right now and although she has many friends, all of them are girls and younger than her. “Perhaps it my short hair easy going nature that leads to misunderstandings,” she laughs.
“I like boys but for some reason only girls keep coming around. But at the end of the day, I’m too busy for a relationship. I still have to finish my bachelor’s degree and train hard to improve my taekwondo skills,” says Chanatip, who after completing her public and sponsor thanking appearances, will resume her senior year at Chulalongkorn University’s education faculty.