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Saisunee Jana triumphs against all odds

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

✦ Chances are most people won’t be overly familiar with the sport of wheelchair fencing and therefore the likelihood of the name Saisunee Jana ringing any bells is almost zero.

However, her story is one of triumph over tragedy, of battling the odds and overcoming adversity, a testament to the true capabilities of the human spirit.

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.

Saisunee Jana her story is one of triumph over tragedy | Brilliant-Online Magazine
Saisunee Jana's story is one of triumph over tragedy

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.

Expert fencer in both the Épée and Foil classes and was Thailand’s first female Paralympic gold | Saisunee Jana | Brilliant-Online Magazine
Expert in both the Épée and Foil classes, Saisunee was Thailand’s first female Paralympic gold medal winner

First up Saisunee defeated Georgia’s new European champion Irma Khetsuriani 15-10 in the women’s individual Foil class B category on Jan 14, which had 20 competitors overall. She then claimed gold in the women’s Épée class on Jan 16 when she defeated Italy’s Rossana Pasquino by a score of 15-7 in an overall field of 23 competitors.

Saisunee also finished fifth overall out of 16 competitors in the women’s saber category, which Khetsuriani won. 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.

Saisunee Jana with the winners in the Fencing World Cup | Brilliant-Online Magazine
Saisunee Jana with the winners in the Fencing World Cup

“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

Tough stuff

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.

Wheelchair fencing | Saisunee Jana | Brilliant-Online Magazine
Saisunee Jana competing in a wheelchair fencing competition

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.

Family is clearly a fundamentally important foundation in life | Saisunee Jana | Brilliant-Online Magazine
Family is clearly a fundamentally important foundation in life for Saisunee

“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 for Saisunee can wait, however, as this gifted athlete clearly still has much to achieve, with many duels and medals ahead in her incredible story yet to be won.


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