That man beaming in many pictures behind Thai badminton world champion Ratchanok "May" Intanon is Xie Zhihua, her Chinese coach and, for her, a second father. He’s been training her for 12 years. The 47-year-old is himself a former national doubles player and counted among his "sparring partners" Li Yongbo, now China’s chief coach.
So when May defeated Chinese top seed Li Xuerui in Guangzhou last week to win the world championship, Xie couldn’t resist saying to the astonished Chinese reporters, "Do you remember me? I used to be on the national team!" Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao followed up by asking how he felt about being criticised in his homeland for helping Thailand top China. Xie said he was unfazed because he’d done his bit for the country, and what he’s doing now is no different from what Lang Ping is doing for the US women’s volleyball team.
"I still hold a Chinese passport and I visit often," Xie told the paper. Indeed, May returned to Thailand without him – the coach was off to visit his mother in Hubei province.
He’ll be back in the Land of Smiles soon, though. He loves grooming Thai players, and "May is like a daughter to me," he said. When May was still a kid he charged her no fee because her family had no cash to spare.
It was his idea to stop kids from running around the candy factory where their parents were making banthongyord and get them playing badminton instead. That’s how the Banthongyord shuttling academy got started. "The factory was full of hot stoves, so it was dangerous for the kids," he explained.
May was one of those youngsters, and shares the tale on Facebook. "I started playing when I was six years old. I was so naughty that my mum was worried I’d could get hurt by the hot syrup pot."
School owner Kamala Thongkorn says Xie was approached to take his coaching talents back home, but he declined. "I guess he’s happy here!" she says. Well, he must be even happier now that one of his students has scored a major international upset.
Xie now also trains her younger brother, another reigning junior champ in Thailand. He and May are among 300 students, including some from China, Spain and Sri Lanka. Twenty of them come from underprivileged families and are coached and housed for free. "They have to pay for their food, though," Xie said. "We have a lot of costs to cover. Shuttlecocks alone cost Bt1,000 per box!"
Asked about his secrets to success as a coach, Xie said he relies on a combination of modern techniques and his own experience as a player back home. "I never lose touch with what’s going on in China because I often travel there to exchange ideas. I never forget my roots," he said.
But May’s heroic victory has caused at least one big change in his outlook. Xie said he now believes in miracles. Let’s hope there are more!