Picture by 2016 Getty Images

Pleumjit Thinkaow: The Thailand star smasher with a massive social media following 

Thailand women's national volleyball team captain Pleumjit Thinkaow is as fierce at the net as she is on it with over a million followers on Instagram. Get to know the Asian star ahead of the 2021 FIVB Nations League. 
By Ken Browne

Pleumjit Thinkaow is a Thai star with a fierce volleyball and social media game.

Thailand's captain is an experienced leader at 37, the centrepiece of the national team at middle blocker.

She's made a long and successful career of spectacular spikes and top-class blocks, and doing it all with a smile, amassing a huge online following along the way.

With over a million followers on Instagram and on her way to 1.5 million on TikTok, Thinkaow is inspiring and engaging a younger generation with fun glimpses at her everyday life - like the TikTok clip of her joking while sitting in an ice bucket that has over 5.4 million views.

Thinkaow is currently the 4th most followed volleyball player on Instagram behind Iran's Saeid Marouf (1.8 million), the Philippines' wildly popular outside hitter Alyssa Valdez (1.3 million) and Brazilian sensation Bruno Mossa de Rezende who has an audience of over 1.1 million people on that platform alone.

Pleumjit Thinkaow: The making of a volleyball star

Thinkaow grew her following over a career that has spanned two decades in Thailand and at international clubs in five different countries.

Born on 9 November 1983, Thinkaow grew up in Angthorn province an hour and a half drive outside the capital Bangkok, she initially played table tennis until her father convinced her to switch to volleyball when she was 14.

That turned out to be a good decision as a young Pleumjit stretched to 1.80m tall, a powerful jump making her a dominant force at the net with a top spike of 3.03 metres and a 2.83m block.

And while she started as an outside hitter, Thinkaow quickly gravitated to a more central role as middle blocker from where she could control games better both on offence and defence.

At 18 she was already playing for the national team and in 2001 picked up her first of ten Southeast Asian Games titles.

Over the course of her career, Thailand's middle blocker has played with clubs at home in the domestic top league, and internationally in China, Vietnam, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.

A lot of her posts go viral in a positive way, most of the Thai star's online content is light and fun, sharing the day-to-day challenges, hard work, laughs and larks of an athlete's life with her fans, posts with personality.

Thai volleyball rising

But behind the smiles there's a serious competitor and in recent years the Thai team has been on the rise, notching up some big results.

They came second in the 2016 Montreux Volley Masters in Switzerland disposing of Serbia, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Turkey on their way to the final, then in 2017 the Thais recorded a famous straight-sets win (25-22, 25-21, 29-27) over Brazil in the Grand Prix, Thinkaow contributing 10 crucial points.

It was their first victory over the South American powerhouse in 13 attempts in the Grand Prix.

And a year later Thailand claimed the runners-up medal at the 2018 Asian Games, only losing out to reigning Olympic champions China in the final.

Thinkaow was at the heart of those accomplishments, alongside her friend and closest ally Nootsara Tomkom, one of the most creative and effective setters that Thailand has ever had.

Tomkom is 38 years old and the duo have been cultivating an on-court chemistry for almost 20 years, an instinctive connection that is as bewildering to opponents as it is brilliant to watch.

Tomkom was the only Thai player chosen by the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) for its “Roster 100: The World’s Best 2010-2020”.

Thai volleyball style

While volleyball is a much-loved sport in Thailand, it's difficult for the team to compete internationally with taller nations.

Previous coach Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai (Known affectionately as Coach Aod) led the team to a fourth-place finish in the 2012 Grand Prix and into the top 10 in the World Rankings.

One of Thailand's best ever teams was built around the 'Fab Five' of Pleumjit Thinkaow, Nootsara Tomkom, Wilavan Apinyapong, Malika Kanthong, and Onuma Sittirak.

Coach laid out the challenges facing the team in an interview with Nation Thailand in September 2011:

"Compared physically with the hefty Chinese or Europeans, most Thai players are short. We have a height average of 176cm against our rivals' 185cm and up. Russia, for example, has two key players in Ekaterina Gamova and Luliia Merkulova and they both stand at just over two metres. Attacking these twin towers is not easy. My team always has a height disadvantage..."

"To beat those rivals, you know that you have no match against their height. So, you have to seek other advantages to fight them or match them competitively. Our players learn how to cope with the rivals' height. We can't make our players tall, so we instruct them to use their pace, speed and power as their weapons," Kiattipong explained.

"If you can't overcome the taller blocker with just spikes, you have to seek other effective ways to accomplish your goal. So, I told my girls to work on attacking from the mid-court and producing deceptive come-from-behind spikes at the net poles.."

The combination of Thinkaow and Tomkom has been crucial to this strategy, the perfect example of the speed and quick-thinking that the Thais use to overcome bigger, more powerful opponents.

The future of Thai Volleyball

In Bangkok the Thailand FIVB Volleyball Development Centre has been promoting the game and producing the next generation of stars that will carry the torch after Pleumjit Thinkaow eventually calls it a day.

Featuring a High Performance Training Centre that encourages and identifies young Thai talent at camps and open days, it also conducts clinics, courses and seminars for management, referees, coaches and players.

At the same time the Centre serves as an Asian hub that welcomes teams from around the region and beyond.

Players from Japan, Singapore, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and even Peru have all benefited from intensive training courses while preparing for tournaments at the Centre.

It's one of four such Centres across Asia in Thailand, Bahrain, India, and Indonesia: All part of FIVB's ongoing strategy to raise the profile of the game in the region and give a new generation of stars a platform.

The future of Thai volleyball is exciting and there is a balance of youth and experience under the guidance of young 35-year-old coach Kittikun Sriutthawong at the 2021 FIVB Nations League pitting Thailand against the best teams on the planet.

The reigning Southeast Asian champions placed 15th and 12th in the first two editions of the new Nations League which replaced the Grand Prix, and will be aiming to improve again this season.

Meanwhile their captain and leader just keeps doing what she does:

Spiking, blocking, smiling and sharing, all the while engaging the next generation to get involved with the sport that she's dedicated a lifetime to.