Kicking back with Panipak, Thailand’s Olympic Taekwondo queen
Panipak Wongpattanakit has etched her name in history as the first Thai woman to win an Olympic gold medal with a kick. Crowned the Taekwondo champion after scoring a last-minute “golden strike” in the women’s 49kg competition on Saturday, this thin but powerful woman placed Thailand top of the world on Day 1 of the Tokyo Games.
Singing the national anthem on the podium, Panipak – in her own words – shed “tears of pride”.
Returning with Thailand’s first gold medal from the 2020 Olympics, she received a hero’s welcome at Phuket International Airport on Monday. Among the large crowd waiting was her father, Sirichai Wongpattanakit, the wind beneath her wings.
Family of athletes
Born on August 8, 1997 in Surat Thani province, Panipak is the third and youngest child of the family. Sirichai and his wife (now deceased) were both keen sports players, and determined to groom their children as professional athletes.
To inspire their kids’ interest in sports, the couple nicknamed them after games – “Bowling” for their oldest daughter, “Baseball” for their only son, and “Tennis” for Panipak.
“I trained them in track and field, football, volleyball, swimming, and cycling during their childhood,” Sirichai recounted. “Then, they could choose to pursue the sport that caught their interest.”
The children ate a balanced diet of five food groups and did exercises for muscle strength and control from a very young age, he added.
Tennis embraces Taekwondo
At the age of nine, Panipak – despite her nickname “Tennis” – was seriously into Taekwando. She witnessed her brother practice the sport and took her father’s advice that Korean martial art would help her protect herself in dangerous situations.
Training, of course, was far from easy. After weeks of punishing physical workouts and sparring in the gym, she came close to giving up sometimes. But encouraged and supported over the years by her dad, she kept going until she won a gold medal at the 13th Thailand National Youth Games in 2011. Her dazzling skills later caught the eye of the Thai national Taekwando team coach, South Korea’s Choi Young-Seok.
Behind every successful man is a supportive (albeit sometimes grumpy) woman, but behind the Olympics gold medal success of taekwondo heroine Panipak “Tennis” Wongpattanakit is a South Korean man who wants to be Thai.
Road to more medals and heartbreak
Under the expert tutelage of Choi, Panipak was able to hone her skills. She spent six days a week in rigorous training, landing about 1,600 kicks per day as well as weightlifting, running, and swimming.
Her efforts were rewarded with a cabinet full of medals, including two golds from the World Taekwondo Championships, three golds from the Chunchueon Korea Open International Taekwondo Championships in South Korea – the most successful nation in this sport – and one at the Asian Games.
Panipak headed to the 2016 Rio Olympics as an emerging global talent. But just as she and Thai fans were hoping she might finally claim Thailand’s first Olympic gold in Taekwando, she lost to a kick by a South Korean in the closing seconds of her semi-final. She returned to Thailand broken-hearted with a bronze medal.
“I had a really good chance back at the Rio Games but in a split-second, I flunked,” she said. “The disappointment was so great that I told Coach Choi I was quitting the sport.”
However, after two months away, she missed Taekwondo so much that she decided to return and get back into hard training for another shot at the Olympics.
Panipak’s efforts finally paid off on Saturday in the most glorious way possible. Winning Thailand’s first Olympic Taekwondo gold medal and the 10th in all sports, she is now the pride of her country and an inspiration for countless Thais.
On top of that, she is set to receive about Bt20 million as a reward for her achievement. That includes a Bt12-million bonus from the National Sports Development Fund and a monthly allowance of Bt12,000 from the National Olympic Committee of Thailand for the next 20 years.
On the mat, Panipak is a fearsome and skilled warrior with multiple weapons at her command. But off the mat, she’s a sweet, happy-go-lucky girl who likes to relax in front of the TV. Her favorite series are romantic comedies like “My Husband in Law” and “I’m Not a Robot”. She also loves playing with dogs.
When she stepped on a podium to receive her gold medal in Tokyo, she wore a pink pair of Crocs with a Cony Jibbitz cartoon design. Her favorite color? Pink.
By Thai PBS World’s Sport Desk
On a day of many upsets, Thailand’s taekwondo flyweight queen Panipak Wongpattanakit did not disappoint in the end, winning her first Olympic gold by a hair on Saturday (July 24) to add to her two world championships.