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Thai badminton star sets off to smashing success

August 21, 2013

BANGKOK (AP) — Behind the pink braces, pony tail and sweet smile lies a fierce, competitive athlete. It’s this side of Ratchanok Inthanon that powers a smash that can send the shuttlecock piercing the air at more than 124 mph.

The Thai teenager last week became the youngest badminton world champion in history, and the first Thai player to win a world title.

It’s the latest in a line of badminton firsts for Ratchanok, who has been playing the sport for almost as long as she can remember.

Born in Thailand’s poor northeast in 1995, Ratchanok — known among Thais as “May” — spent her early years next to furnaces in a confectionary factory in Bangkok’s western outskirts where her parents worked.

After school, she would run around the factory while her parents were busy scooping golden-color traditional Thai desserts from gigantic brass pans. To divert her attention from the boiling syrup and to keep her safe from cooking hazards, Kamala Thongkorn — the factory owner who was also her godmother — introduced Ratchanok to badminton at the age of 5.

Ratchanok studied the basics of the game for months before she got to hold the racket, and then had to wait for older kids to finish their daily practice before she could go on the court.

Two years later, Ratchanok competed in a national championship and won her first trophy at 7. She proceeded to win the same tournament for three consecutive years.

Taking her experience to the international arena, Ratchanok became the youngest-ever champion at the Badminton World Federation’s World Junior Championships in 2009, when as a 14-year-old she won the first of her three consecutive titles.

That was just the entree for a senior professional career that already has netted her a world title at the age of 18.

After more than a decade of arduous training, Ratchanok knows that it takes a lot more than luck to reach the top.

“I think it was diligence, rigorous practice routines and the courage to play the way I had practiced — as well as patience and efforts — that made me become the world’s champion,” Ratchanok said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Ratchanok spends seven hours a day, seven days a week, practicing at Banthongyord Badminton School — the sports institute that grew out of the factory’s one badminton court.

“May is a very disciplined and obedient girl. She always shows up on time and never skipped any practice. I’ve never heard she complained once,” Kamala said. “We never wanted to rush her in her career and want to make sure she has everything she needs when the time is right.”

This month’s triumph put Ratchanok in the second spot of the BWF women’s singles standings, bringing her a step closer to one of her two goals: to be the world No. 1 and to win an Olympic gold medal.

And that has only added to her motivation.

“It only makes me think that the world’s No. 1 isn’t far from reach, if I’m determined and if I keep practicing very hard,” she said.

Ratchanok’s sensational victory also put Thailand on a badminton map that has long been dominated by competitors from other Asian nations, such as China and Indonesia.

Since returning to Thailand, Ratchanok has been showered with gifts and cash rewards from the country’s key figures and organizations, including the Queen and the Crown Prince of Thailand, and the prime minister.

And while she misses the simple pleasures of adolescence, like hanging out and shopping with her friends, Ratchanok enjoys the trappings of being a professional athlete.

“If I weren’t playing badminton, I’d probably be in school and had my parents pay for my tuition,” she said. “Instead, I make money and I’m helping them out of poverty.

“Now I’m saving up to buy a house for them, so badminton ... it’s my life.”

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