Saisunee was born into poverty in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, the eldest of two sisters. Working in a factory from a young age to help support her family, she was involved in a tragic accident aged 17 when her motorbike she was riding collided with a 10-wheel truck, leaving her paralysed in both legs.
She went through a dark period of depression following the accident, heightened by the fact that her parents split soon after. Overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, she actually attempted to take her own life at one point, but the realisation that her family still needed her shook her into affecting positive change. She finished her high school education then enrolled in a government-run institute for further education for the physically challenged. It was here that she happened across sports for the physically challenged that would change her life forever.
Realising it would potentially offer a career with route for international travel, chance to win accolades and money and, most importantly, provide a definitive purpose, the fiercely driven and determined Saisunee’s mind was made up. “At the time I had no idea which sport to choose - all I knew was that I wanted to become a sportswoman, travel and earn a livelihood.”
Initially displaying great prowess as part of the wheelchair basketball team, she eventually turned her attention to the more individually focused sport of wheelchair fencing and hasn’t looked back since. In fact, aside from making her physically and emotionally stronger, it has become a successful career that has seen her hailed as a national treasure in her homeland, with a glittering trophy haul to prove it.
‘Pride and Happiness’
The 48-year-old is now an expert fencer in both the Épée and Foil classes and was Thailand’s first female Paralympic gold medallist when she won the Épée B event at the 2004 Athens Paralympics. She has since gone on to secure two gold, one silver and three bronze medals in total from five appearances at the Paralympic Games.
The medals and accolades continued in January this year when Saisunee won two gold medals at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in Washington, USA, where more than 100 wheelchair fencers from 26 countries participated.
Her achievements saw a message of personal congratulations from Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who praised her efforts that brought “great pride and happiness to the people of Thailand”.
“I am so incredibly proud of my achievements at this event,” Saisunee said afterwards. “To win a medal is always a great achievement so to win two is incredible and I am so happy.”
Saisunee, who was the flag bearer for her country at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, added that she is now fully focused on the World Championships in Italy in October, where she expects stiff competition from Chinese athletes.
“The Chinese did not compete at this competition in Washington so I am looking forward to facing them. They are very tough opponents but I will try to do my best,” she said
Saisunee knows first hand how difficult opponents from China can be after Tan Shumei defeated her 15-9 in the Épée B class at the semi-final stage of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Despite her disappointment, however, she did go on to claim bronze against China’s Zhou Jingjing, Thailand’s first medal at the Games.
The fact the Games went ahead at all was a major positive for Saisunee who struggled during the COVID-19 pandemic and was massively despondent when the competition she had been focused on for four years was forced to be delayed by 12 months.
She admits struggling to adapt to the new normal as her entire training regime moved online and travel bans forced authorities to cancel competitions she was supposed to attend prior to Tokyo.
However, Saisunee, is made of tough stuff and soon reversed her mindset to adopt a positive approach, similar to that which propelled her out of poverty in Chiang Mai years ago to success as a national athlete.
“I had to quickly get out of the depression I was in,” she told the Bangkok Post in 2021. “It was really difficult financially to stay afloat but by training myself to look at the overall situation in a positive light, things became more bearable.”
She also turned her hand to an alternative way of making money to support her family during such challenging times. Owning a plot of land in Phrae, she decided to temporarily move her family there and farm the land.
“I began growing vegetables and fruits, which was enough for my family, and I sold the leftover at the open-air market. I really saw the value of owning my land for the first time. Family support also played a pivotal role in my ability to stay focused on my training for the Paralympics,” she said.
Supporting family is something Saisunee is rightfully very proud of. She has used her career earnings astutely, purchasing houses for her parents in addition to land for the family and also funding her younger sister’s university education. Married to a fellow national Thai fencer, family is clearly a fundamentally important foundation in her life.
“The pandemic taught me several lessons. An area in my life that I often overlooked was appreciating my roots and my provincial home. Rural folks such as myself easily get accustomed to the glitz and glamour of city life, which often makes us hesitant to return home.
“COVID-19 changed this perception for me. I no longer need to wait until retirement to see the importance of returning to my family’s farming roots and practising the self-sufficient tradition that is part of Thai culture.”
Any mention of retirement can wait for now, however, as Saisunee looks towards yet further success at the World Championships in Italy in October and no doubt another chapter in her incredible story.
- Additional reporting by the Bangkok Post
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