Rising above the competition
Setter for the national volleyball squad Nootsara Tomkom talks about her achievements and why sheWhen Nootsara Tomkom was a child, she dreamed of graduating from a Bangkok university. As a teenager, she realised that the family's modest budget - dad worked at a Ratchaburi sugar factory - wasn't going to cover her study costs and she would need to find a scholarship.
With a keen footballer for a brother and her older sister in the school volleyball team, she set her sight on sports. Nootsara not only managed to graduate but today, she's one of the leading lights of the national volleyball squad, who recently thrilled Thai fans by taking fourth place at the FIVB World Grand Prix in China. Their victory also marked the first time that Thailand has emerged as the best team in Asia at any FIVB-sanctioned tournament.
That fourth place was the team's best performance in a decade of competing in the World Grand Prix. Last year, the Thai squad finished sixth and the team is currently ranked twelfth in the world.
Nootsara or Sarah, as she is called by foreign players, has played an important role in the team's accomplishments. She started playing volleyball as a 10 year-old and was picked for the national team when she was 17. At first, she played in all positions but her coach soon recognised her skills in the setter position.
"The setter position is really the commander of the team. I have to give all instructions to my team-mates on the court using hand signals that the opposing team won't understand," she says.
Ranked world number one setter and taking home the Best Setter Award in the World Grand Prix 2012, Nootsara says she believes the recognition is due to a combination of talent and accumulated experience.
Five years ago, Sarah made her international career debut with a team in the Spanish professional league before moving on to play in Switzerland and Azerbaijan. She says she enjoys her life abroad.
"The hardest thing is the style of ball setting. It's very different from the way we play here. They play high but slow," she says.
Asian players have long been disadvantaged in purely physical terms. "Our bodies are smaller than those of Western players so we have to use or adjust our techniques, individual abilities as use teamwork to beat them. I believe we can overcome every team," says Nootsara, who stands 1.69 metres tall.
She feels volleyball has increased in popularity among Thai fans and is pleased to see the game more widely covered by the media.
"It's changed a lot. Not only do we get more attention from the media and have lots more fans, we also have more sponsors, greater financial supporters and better facilities. That because we are determined and have made good progress," she says.
Although only 27, Nootsara is careful about saving money and increasing her assets. Unlike many athletes who have blown their salaries, she has invested in gold and land.
If her life were not taken up by volleyball, she says she would have probably been working in an office or perhaps as a chef.
"I'd like to open a Korean restaurant. I enjoy cooking and moo kata (pork barbecue) is my favourite dish. But I have no one to take care of the shop for me, so it's still a dream project," she says.
Despite the Thai team failing to qualify for the London's Olympics 2012, Nootsara feels she's done well in her career.
"I never thought I'd be able to play volleyball professionally as I have such a small build. I realised my childhood dream by graduating from university and found a job with the Provincial Electricity Authority. And when it comes to volleyball, my ranking has never fallen below world number three setter," she says proudly.
Yet having been a national player for 10 years, she admits that she is starting to feel tired. While she has no plans to retire, she knows her sporting career is not going to run indefinitely.
"It depends on my physical strength, my performance, as well as the readiness of junior players who can replace me."
Along with other national players, she has received an offer from Azerbaijan to join its league next season. Each player would earn about Bt2.5 million for the three-month competition. Similar offers have come in Poland and Germany but Noorsara has yet to make a decision. "I need to know more about the leagues and the safety standards," she explains.
Nootsara's pretty face inevitably draws the TV cameras for close-up shots during competitions and the number 13 spiker admits that she's a high-maintenance lady. Also concerned about her appearance, she travels with a full beauty kit in her luggage.
She follows a strict cleansing and creaming routine at night and takes care of her face and skin before a match too. Masks are part of her everyday care and she panics if a pimple dares put in an appearance.
So it comes as no surprise that sports fans will soon see Nootsara in a different role. She recently accepted an offer to act as a presenter for TOT.
She's also received another offer from a spa company and says she's delighted to become their presenter. "It's not about the money though," she says. "They offered me free spa treatments during one-year contract. I love the spa but I can't afford the luxury, so I said yes immediately!"