Thirteen months ago Thailand’s Nichakan Chinupun had never seen snow. Now she is a bonafide Winter Youth Olympian, having completed both runs to finish 37th out of a starting list of 78 athletes in the Alpine skiing women’s giant slalom on Sunday.
“The first time I saw snow it was very beautiful and I couldn’t believe how soft it was when I touched it. But I was scared to walk on it,” Chinupun said of her eye-opening trip to Gressoney in the Italian Alps in December 2018.
It did not take her long to get comfortable on the white stuff.
Thailand’s pioneering PyeongChang 2018 Olympic cross-country skier Karen Chanloung was Chinupun’s host in Italy and was blown away by the ability the teenager immediately showed.
“I was way more worried than she was,” said Chanloung, who welcomed 12 keen young athletes into her home as part of a government-backed mission to encourage native Thais to embrace winter sport.
“But I was really surprised how good she was right from the beginning. On the first day we went out and did some cross-country and straight away she was doing some downhills.”
For Chinupun, who had first tried roller skiing just four months previously, the introduction to the real thing brought on an instant passion.
“I was so excited to try it,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how long the skis were. They were difficult to control and fast but I loved it straight away.”
A ski trip to Russia followed before Italian coach Attilio Perona, a resident in Thailand since 2017, agreed to take charge. With the firm backing of the Ski and Snowboard Association of Thailand (SSAT), Perona took his new pupil to New Zealand in August 2019 for a crash course in the intricacies of ski racing.
Five months and a further training camp in Italy later, Perona cannot believe the progress Chinupun has made.
“I am really so, so proud,” the coach said. “Today was really, really challenging. For the top ones it was amazing but for those not so skilled the piste and snow conditions were so tough.”
Chinupun’s compatriot Natthawut Hiranrat goes in both the men’s giant slalom on Monday and slalom on Tuesday, while Thailand also has two athletes competing in cross-country skiing and one in short track speed skating.
For the cross-country team manager Taratip Chantawat (THA), this five-strong delegation represents the tip of the iceberg for winter sports and the South East Asian nation.
“When you say snow and ski [in Thailand] everybody goes ‘wooh’ but we say come and learn,” Chantawat said. “Three or four years ago the president [of the SSAT] had the vision to get Thais into skiing via roller skiing. We had 80 kids start and now we have 200.
“In 2020 we are going to have a minimum of four roller ski competitions and one will be a FIS (International Ski Federation) race.
“It’s so new and exciting for them.”