The 23-year-old Surat Thani native, nicknamed “Tennis”, became an Olympic champion in dramatic fashion on Saturday (July 24) courtesy of a last-gasp kick in the women’s 49kg Taekwondo final against Spanish teenager Adriana Cerezo Iglesias.
In what was a nail-biting conclusion to the contest, Panipak was trailing 10-9 with only five seconds remaining. It was then that she unleashed her final successful kick that brought her a dramatic 11-10 victory.
Cue ecstatic celebrations for Panipak and her team at the Makuhari Messe center in Chiba prefecture, just outside Tokyo, as she and her coach Choi Young-Seok ran around the competition venue waving a large Thai flag.
She arrived at Phuket International Airport this morning at 9am on a Singapore Airlines flight and will stay on the island for 14 days under the sandbox scheme. She was joined on the flight by Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan, additional staff and fellow athletes.
“I’m really happy to receive such a warm welcome on landing in Phuket,” Panipak said.
“It’s the happiest moment of my life,” she added proudly.
She was greeted by a bouquet of flowers on her arrival, arranged by Phuket Governor Narong Woonciew at the request of Her Royal Highness Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana Rajakanya.
‘Cookies and crepes’
Asked what the first thing she plans to do in Phuket is, Panipak answered: “I want to enjoy the delicious seafood here, as I know it is very famous. I want to eat seafood, grilled meat - and cookies and crepes!”
Asked about her future plans, Panipak explained she plans to continue working on her taekwondo and will continue to compete. She said she hopes to be able to compete at the next Olympics in Paris in 2024 “if my body is fit and ready”.
“I will take it step by step but plan to do my best in every stage and competition,” she added.
“I want to thank you people in the south and every person in this country for cheering and supporting me,” Panipak said when asked by media to extend a message to Thai people in a southern dialect.
“I eventually managed to win a gold medal, and the medal is for everyone. Thank you very much.”
After conducting the relevant COVID test at the airport, Panipak travelled to Phuket Town where she will stay at the Novotel Phuket Phokeethara and wait for the results of her test.
Assuming the test returns negative, the plan is for Panipak to spend her 14 day stay travelling the island and helping promote Phuket as a preferred tourism destination. It was also confirmed there will be a parade on August 5 to allow people to celebrate and extend their congratulations.
Panipak’s triumph was only the third discipline that Thailand has won an Olympic gold medal in, having previously accumulated five in weightlifting and four in boxing.
For Panipak it completes a collection of gold medals from major international tournaments including the Youth Olympics, world championships and Asian Games.
Despite winning bronze in Rio in 2016, Panipak was so upset and despondent that she considered quitting the sport for good.
However, despite a brief two-month hiatus, she returned with the goal of winning gold in Tokyo.
“I had a really good chance in Rio but in a fraction of a second, I blew it,” she said previously.
“I was so disappointed and I told my coach I did not want to keep going. But after two months, I really missed taekwondo and resumed training.
“I often told myself, ‘You have to go back [to the Olympics] and win’.”
Millions of Thais are glad she did exactly that as the gold medal triumph was celebrated nationwide by proud fans seeking some joy during these troubled times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Welcome Khun Panipak and congratulations, You make Thailand proud!” commented one fan on the Phuket News Facebook page.
“Thank you nong Tennis for bringing happiness to the country again,” added another.
“Kudos to you Panipak. Your performance is a shining light in these darkest of times,” one fan commented on a Bangkok Post forum.
“A great example is these troubled times. Honesty and effort... qualities that many ‘VIP’ people in Thailand will never understand. Congratulations,” said another.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha was also quick to congratulate Panipak for her success.
“It is a reward for an athlete who trained hard with determination during this difficult time,” government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri quoted Prayut as saying.
“Our Prime Minister already had a call with ‘Tennis’ and other athletes to congratulate them for their achievements and their roles as national representatives,” commented Tourism and Sports Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan.
“I hope everyone in Thailand is happy with Panipak’s win and I hope we manage to win more medals at the Games,” he added.
Minister Pipat Ratchakitprakan also confirmed that all athletes and staff returning from Tokyo will come directly to Phuket under the Sandbox scheme.
“I do not think it is a good idea for athletes and associated staff to be restricted to quarantine in a hotel for 14 days after all the work and effort they have put in for the Olympics,” he said.
“It is a much better option for them to come to Phuket under the Sandbox scheme where they can relax and unwind. All athletes and staff will come to Phuket whether they win medals or not.
“I will also spend time in Phuket for 14 days, as I also came from Tokyo,” he added.