Chiangrai Times – Pen-Ek Karaket is known locally for two things: His good looks and his aggressive competing style. The London Games will be his first experience at the Olympics, and he’s dreaming of a gold medal.
Pen-Ek – who Thais say is the most handsome among Thailand’s popular taekwondo athletes – started his career at the national level at age 15. He was inspired by Wijarn Polrit, a Thai boxer who won a gold medal at the Sydney games in 2000. Pen-Ek watched him on TV and started dreaming that he would win the gold medal someday.
“I watched him on television at the Olympic finals and that drove me to pay attention and train hard, because I want to be a national athlete, and my dream is to win a gold medal in an Olympic games,” he said.
After he told his family about his goal, he started training hard, and participated in as many domestic and international tournaments as possible to gain experience. He got his first victory at the Asian Youth Taekwondo Championships in 2004. Two years later, he won the gold medal at a world taekwondo championship, opening the door to more international recognition. He followed that victory with a gold medal in the Korea Open in 2007 and another gold medal at the Asian Martial Arts Games in 2009. In 2010, he won a gold medal in the Asian Championships and a silver at the Asian Games. Most recently, he won a gold medal in the men’s 58 kg weight class at the WTF World Taekwondo Qualification event for the London Olympic games.
Pen-Ek ranks 3rd in the world in the under-58 kg weight class for the Olympics, with fights scheduled for early August.
“I will do my best to get a gold medal because I dedicated everything to my hard work,” Pen-Ek told the Wall Street Journal.
Pen-Ek, who is 22 and also studying architecture, gets lots of support from fans, especially young Thai women, who say he has a pretty face. Boosters have set up a fan page on Facebook with news clippings, photos and videos, and sometimes Pen-Ek pops up on the site to say hello.
His fan club has also created a music video that uses photos of Pen-Ek training, competing, relaxing, and studying. Some fans post love messages online.
Pen-Ek is widely seen as one of the top medal hopefuls for Thailand in the London Games, especially given Thailand’s good record in taekwondo in the past. Thai athlete Yaowapa Burapolchai won a bronze medal in the women’s 49 kg division at the 2004 Athens Games – the first Olympic medalist in taekwondo for Thailand. Four years later in Beijing, Pen-Ek’s older player, Buttree Puedpong, won a silver medal in the same class.
“I want (a gold medal) badly, because it’s been my dream since I was young, and nobody in Thailand ever wins the gold medal for taekwondo,” he said.
“I’m not afraid of any athlete at all, not even the Koreans, who invented this sport. The Koreans have a gift and talent for this sport, but I will use my hard training and practice to beat them all.”