Although she may not be a household name worldwide, in Thailand Ratchanok ‘May’ Intanon is a sports superstar. Just 21 years old, she recently became the top ranking women’s badminton player in the world and this summer, she heads to the Olympic games in Rio.
This national star-to-be was born in Roi Et in 1995, and moved to Bangkok when she was only 3 months old. Her parents had begun working at the Bang Thong Yod dessert factory, the place where Ratchanok ‘May’ Intanon’s amazing career all began. The factory’s owner, Kamala Thongkorn, worried that children of her workers might have an accident with one of the machines in her factory, so she decided to send the children—including Ratchanok— to Banthongyord Badminton School (which she also ran), to practice badminton with other young beginners.
Surrounding by competitive partners, Ratchanok found she enjoyed practicing, and started setting goals for each tournament. She won her first trophy when she was only seven years old, which ignited her ambition to go as far as she could as a professional badminton player. For almost 15 years she has been working hard to follow her dream, together with major help from the experienced coaching team at Banthongyord which includes Xie Zhuhua, a former national player from China, and Patapol Ngernsrisuk, also a former national badminton player and son of Kamala Thongkorn. According to coach Xie, his young protégé has trained hard every single day for the past 15 years. She practices badminton daily, for at least three hours (although the maximum for her is a grueling seven hours a day). She has been doing this, along with her regular academic schooling, since she was six years old, and she is now a freshman in Political Science at Thonburi Bangkok University.
Some recent and remarkable moments have marked 2016 as Ratchanok’s “golden year”. She became the youngest singles champion of the BWF World Super Series, and the first ever to win three matches in three consecutive weeks. And, by winning this trio of Super Series—in India, Malaysia and Singapore—her total score brought her to first place in the rankings, thus making her the world’s No.1 badminton player (although at the time of this writing she has dipped to No. 2 in the rankings, which is still very impressive).
When did you begin playing badminton, and did you ever think that you would become a professional player?
I started playing badminton when I was six years old, but I had no special inspirations to become a professional. As a child, I played badminton only for fun and exercise, without any idea of growing up to compete professionally.
How old were you when you won your first big badminton match?
As far as I remember, I won my very first prize when I was seven. That was at the Udon Thani Open. I was very happy and excited.
What are some of the upcoming tournaments you are getting ready for at the moment?
I am training for the Asia Championship, and the Women’s Team World Championship, and a few World Superseries matches before the Olympic Games in August in Rio de Janeiro. Whenever I have time I keep practicing, in order to perfect my game.
Where is your favourite place in Bangkok to practice your chosen sport?
I’ve never been to any gyms apart from the gym at Banthongyod Badminton School. When I was growing up that’s where I began playing badminton.
Do you think Bangkok is provided with adequate places for exercise or sports?
I don’t think there is enough space in Bangkok where people can exercise and play sports. But, I also think this shouldn’t be an obstacle to working out, since there are various kinds of exercises that you can do in a limited space.
Do you get recognized when you go out? How did people react after you became number 1 in the world singles rankings?
They do recognize my face from the newspapers and the TV. Some might walk up to me and greet me, but some will just look at me from a distance as they’re not entirely sure of who I am.
What is your biggest goal at present?
To win an Olympic gold medal! I am quite confident with my performance and I am ready to face any competitors. Winning a gold medal at this summer’s Olympic Games will mark a pinnacle of my life as an athlete so far.