Living room practice table is Thai's last stop on long road to Tokyo

·2-min read

Thai table tennis star Orawan Paranang fires balls across the practice table that dominates the living room of her modest house on the edge of Bangkok.

The makeshift training setup is the final stage of a 17-year journey that has taken the left-hander from poverty in rural Thailand to the grand stage of the Olympics.

The 24-year-old, once told she was too short to play the game, secured her spot at the Tokyo Games with victory in the south-east Asia regional qualifiers in Qatar in March.

After helping to support her family in north-east Thailand with prize money since she was 15, she now stands on the threshold of the highest stage.

"When I passed that point (Olympic qualification), I felt like I finally managed to lift a heavy stone off my chest," Orawan told AFP.

"It was an indescribable feeling."

Her love of the game was sparked in her home district -- deep in the rice fields of Ubon Ratchathani, a farming province on the border with Laos and Cambodia -- when the seven-year-old Orawan saw older pupils winning prizes at school.

But as the fourth of five children born to poor farmer parents, getting even basic equipment such as bats was a struggle.

"My family didn't really have much money to support my pursuit of this sport. But they've always been supportive spiritually and mentally and let me do what I love," she said.

Orawan also faced a battle to secure her first coach, slogging away at drills over countless hours to prove her commitment.

Eventually the coach agreed to take on Orawan, pay for her kit and equipment, and she later enrolled at a specialist sports school in Bangkok.

- Home training -

Orawan's big tournament breakthrough came in 2018 as she won the women's doubles at the Thailand Open with Suthasini Sawettabut.

Now the living room of the home she shares with her boyfriend and nephew has become her training centre as she dedicates seven hours a day to preparing for next month's Games.

With a world ranking of 88 and table tennis giants China expected to dominate the podium as usual, Orawan's medal chances are slim, but she is determined to give a good account of herself.

"My goal is to get as close to the final rounds as possible," she says brightly.

For Orawan, even reaching this point represents a huge achievement -- a reminder that the Olympic spirit is about more than winning medals.

"At this point of my life, I feel like I've succeeded and my parents and my family are happy," she says.

"Everything's changed, the financial status of my family has improved. It's not yet perfect but we're not struggling like we used to any more."