You cannot separate your human experience from your sporting success: A conversation with Sanya Richards-Ross


Editor’s Note: This Saturday, NBCSN will air a full slate of track & field coverage beginning with the Drake Relays (NBCSN 3pm ET), followed by the USATF Grand Prix at the Oregon Relays (NBCSN 5pm ET). Four-time Olympic gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross – who made her broadcast debut for NBC in 2016 – will be in the booth as an analyst for both events. Ahead of the back-to-back meets, On Her Turf caught up with Richards-Ross to talk about the women who inspire her, her move from running races to calling them, and what social justice advocacy means to her.

By Amelia Acosta 

On Her Turf: This is a question I’m sure you get a lot – who is your favorite track and field athlete of all time?

Sanya Richards-Ross: Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

I was born in Jamaica and nine-time Olympic medalist Merlene Ottey was our hero growing up. I admired her tenacity, her longevity, her grace, on and off the track.

But when I moved to the United States, Jackie became a huge role model to me. Just seeing how she bounced back from disappointment, winning a silver medal at the 1984 Olympics and coming back and winning gold in 1992. It was kind of reminiscent of my own story at the Olympics [which we’ll get to soon!]. Later, she became an actual real mentor.

She would always reach out to me before races and after races and she was that shoulder I could lean on. She had been there before. For me it was also bigger than just track, so I also loved what she did for St. Louis, creating these great community outreach programs to help younger people get into sports.

On Her Turf: You are now that idol for many runners currently competing. What does it mean to you when athletes cite you and your career as a source of inspiration?

Richards-Ross: It just warms my heart when I hear young athletes speak about me as inspiration, whether it was our direct contact or just my performances on the track. I think inspiration is so important. When you see something great, it inspires you to be great, and to be that for somebody else, I don’t think that there is a better feeling. It means the world to me to know that the hard work I put in on the track inspired other athletes to want to do the same.

On Her Turf: At the 2008 Olympics, you entered the Olympic 400m final as the favorite and finished third, which you’ve described as one of your biggest disappointments. How did you handle that experience and come back to win gold in 2012?

Richards-Ross: When I was nine years old, I told my teacher I was going to be an Olympic champion.

And in 2008 I was literally undefeated in every 400m race that year until the Olympic final. To not cross that finish line first when that’s the race that you dream of, when that’s the race that you’re working for all those years… Heartbreaking is an understatement. It was so disappointing.

The toughest part about it is when you cross the finish line, you immediately know: I have to wait four more years to have this opportunity again. That is an overwhelming feeling that is really hard to describe. A few weeks later, I ran one of my fastest times ever [at a Diamond League event in Zurich] but nobody cared. It wasn’t the Olympic final.

After that year, I got a sports psychologist. I realized that as much as I felt like I had the best coach on the track, I needed to have someone to help coach me through being mentally tough and strong on the track.

I got my sports psychologist in 2009 and won my first world title in 2009. It was a phenomenal race for me and a phenomenal season – I was world athlete of the year in 2009. Unfortunately, I pulled my quad muscle in 2010 and really struggled that year. 2011 was tough on me too. I made the team for World Championships but still hadn’t really recovered from the injury.

But in 2012… I worked my butt off! I started doing 2,000 sit-ups a day. I was on a mission. I refused not to be prepared, mentally and physically, for that Olympic moment. It was still really tough. You walk on the track for that final and the last memory you have of being in that race is one of getting out first, being 50 meters away from the line and it just not happening. I had to work through all of that. I had to be there and say, This is my time. This is my moment.

It really felt like I ran into my fairytale ending. Here I was at 27, finally living the dream. People say it all the time: You’re standing on the podium and your life flashes before your eyes. It really does! You just wish they’d keep playing the anthem for you, like, run it back DJ!

I always reflect on my career: If I had won ’08, would I have won 2012? Would I have gotten too relaxed? You just never know. My husband [retired NFL cornerback Aaron Ross] was there, at his first Olympics. My whole family was there. It just felt like the perfect opportunity and time to win my individual gold medal.

On Her Turf: In addition to individual success, you were a staple of the U.S. women’s 4x400m relay team, winning three Olympic gold medals in that event. What’s special about running that event?

Richards-Ross: The relay is a beast of its own. When you get to step on that track and walk out with that USA uniform on, you feel like a superhero. There’s a kind of star quality to the team. That feeling just makes you feel like you’re unstoppable. Nobody’s going to mess with us.

With the U.S. team’s rich history in the event, there’s also this unspoken trust and responsibility of: We have to do this. Especially because the 4x400m relay is usually the final event on the track. It really sets the tone for how we leave the Olympics. We win this, we come back and dominate again next year. It’s an amazing amount of pressure… But it feels light. Because in an individual event, it’s a pressure that feels heavy. But in the relay the feeling is Oh, we got this.

One of my most memorable moments was in 2008, after losing the individual 400m, being able to come back for the relay. As the anchor leg, most of the time I get the stick in front and it’s kind of like a victory lap. If I get a head start, forget it. Nobody’s going to catch me. But in 2008 – for the first time – I got the stick behind. Heading into that final lap, Russia was in the lead. But I was more determined than ever, because I had only won a bronze. I was thinking I had to leave Beijing with a gold. Most people, when they think about my career or tell me the moments that were most memorable for them, it’s that anchor leg, running down the Russian team and overcoming them and winning that gold medal.

It made me so proud to see the 2016 team go out there and dominate because there’s also a confidence that’s transferred from each team, each year, where you feel like, We can do this. We’ve done it over and over again, and it feels good to be a part of the rich history of that U.S. Olympic 4x400m relay.

RELATED: 100 ways women can make history at the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics

On Her Turf: In 2016, you made an incredibly unique transition: Just days after competing at U.S. Olympic Trials and not making the team, you joined the booth as a broadcaster for NBC. How did you handle the disappointment and the move to the new role?

Richards-Ross: 2016 was a year of tremendous highs and tremendous lows. It was the first time I had ever tried out for a U.S. team and not made it, going back to 2003. In 2016, after having three surgeries on my toe and pulling my hamstring midway through the season, I was a longshot to make the team. But I’m that kind of person – I always think it’s possible. If I’m there, anything can happen.

So it was really tough when I wasn’t even able to get out of the first round at Olympic Trials. But I also remember this very special moment: I stopped running at the 200-meter mark and I kind of hung my head down. I was going through all the emotions of realizing that I didn’t make the Olympic team and that this is how my career is going to end, and I was feeling very overcome by the moment. And a woman yells out in the crowd: “We love you, Sanya!” And the entire stadium stands up and gives me this really warm standing ovation. It made me realize in that moment that this really was a beautiful journey, an amazing career.

I had already announced I was going to retire after 2016. I was very intentional about the things I wanted to do. I kept saying them out loud: I want to do television, I want to write a book, I want to become a mom. I’ll never forget when Lewis Johnson interviewed me after that race and said, “What can we expect from you next?” And I said, “I’m going to become a mom finally, I’m going to write my book, and maybe I could be up in the booth with you guys!” And that was it. I got a call a day or two later from NBC’s team. I still hadn’t quite gotten over not making the Olympic team, so I asked for a few days just to deal with that. And then I was in the booth with this fantastic group of broadcasters who I had so much respect for.

Being in the booth for the conclusion of Olympic Trials felt so easy. Ato Boldon, Tom Hammond, they just embraced me, and it was amazing. Then we go over to Rio and our producer, he has this kind of dry humor that I didn’t figure out until later. Right before we go on the air, he says: “30 seconds to 30 million. Be great.” And I’m like: Oh my god! I literally didn’t even breathe the first time I went on camera.

I’m so thankful that now I have the opportunity to contribute to my sport in a new way, in a different way. It’s really been an amazing joy for me to be a broadcaster and to do all the things that I would have wanted people to do when I was on the track: telling the stories of athletes as colourfully and as humanly as possible.

On Her Turf: How do you think your experience as an athlete informs the way you approach broadcasting?

Richards-Ross: I still feel like I’m an athlete. I still feel like I’m training, and I know what it takes. For the sprints, our commentary has to be brief. The race itself is done in 11 seconds, or 48 seconds, or 50 seconds. I just really want the viewer to understand what they’re seeing, to understand all the hard work that goes into these moments, the focus that it takes to go out and execute. You think about how long track and field has been around. To see someone break into the top-10 fastest times or break an American record – that means something. My goal is to try to make the audience understand the heroics of what they’re seeing and the greatness of what these athletes are doing.

My goal is also to humanize the athletes. We try to find stories or things that will connect them to the audience. There are big stories around someone like Nia Ali – she’s a mom twice over and has come back and run so well, become a world champion. There are so many women who can’t wrap their heads around that, who say, “What?! A mom juggling all that?” And then there are the small details like where a competitor is from, so that people can feel connected to the athletes that they see.

On Her Turf: Do you have a favorite moment you’ve called as an Olympic broadcaster?

Richards-Ross: Hands down – and I hope that there will be another moment that challenges it – but hands down the best moment I’ve called is Wayde Van Niekerk’s world record in the 400m at the 2016 Olympics.

Before the race, Ato and I were doing our preparation. I told Ato that I thought Wayde was going to break the world record that night. And he agreed, but he cautioned me about saying it, because if you say it and he doesn’t… It might be a great race, but then feel like a disappointment to the audience. But Ato said It’s up to you, do you. So I decided I was going to say it and of course afterwards I was like: I TOLD you he was going to break the record!

That moment of seeing somebody run the fastest time ever, in a race that many of us thought the record wouldn’t be broken anytime soon (Michael Johnson’s previous record of 43.18 is already mind-blowing)… That by far was the most incredible moment.

On Her Turf: I think you’re highlighting a challenge most viewers wouldn’t realize exists for broadcasters: Adding context to a moment while also letting a moment breathe. How do you balance the two?

Richards-Ross: It’s a challenge. Our producers are fantastic – they’ll say, “Let it breathe. Let it breathe,” because you can feel the energy speaking for itself. When you’re a commentator, especially because you’re not being seen, the only time people know you’re there is when you open your mouth. So sometimes there’s a feeling of needing to say something. But I learned very quickly that’s not what we’re there for. We’re there to enhance the experience for the viewer. Wayde was one of the moments – no one had to tell us. I just knew. And then because it was a world record, you get more time. We go back, break down the greatness of the race and contextualize what happened.

I think that’s also a great lesson for life. For me, many times I’m rushing to do something or say something, but there will come a time, and you will know. It will be appropriate to speak up or make that next step. And I think that also happens quite naturally in broadcasting IF you let it.

On Her Turf: Switching gears a little… A big focus for you has been in your post-athletics career has been providing a support system for Black women and Black moms. What does that mean to you?

Richards-Ross: As an athlete, you are having a very unique experience, especially as a Black woman. In sports, I never really felt discriminated against. You run fast, you get a lane. I’d stand on the track and be one of five or six strong Black women competing. I felt like that was what the world was like: You’re excellent, you get an opportunity. Then as I transitioned out of sports, I realized it was a very different world for Black women. I sat in rooms many times where I was one of one. I was invited into these rooms because of my excellence on the track, and I thought, Wow, I know so many women who could do this job, or so many women who could be here that just aren’t because of lack of resources or lack of access.

I started my platform, MommiNation, two years ago, because felt like as an athlete, I thrived on having a community and support that made me know I could accomplish whatever my heart desired. In motherhood, even though it’s not a journey you’re doing by yourself by any means, it can still feel very lonely. A lot of women go through postpartum depression, and there’s a huge transition around whether you want to go back to work. I wanted to create that safe space for moms to be able to feel Oh, this is normal. I am okay. I am doing the best that I can do.

I also wanted to create resources for Black moms to be able to provide for their families in meaningful ways and still be there for their children. I’m still in the process of working on making this group all the things I dream of.

The conversation around Black women and moms goes so far beyond sports: We look at the Black maternal mortality rate and see that Black women are four times more likely to die during childbirth than our white counterparts. Part of my goals with MommiNation is to consider why that happens and what can we do. This is the best time of a woman’s life – they shouldn’t feel like they are not being cared for or that they can’t speak up about how they feel.

RELATED: With overseas fans barred from Olympics, new moms ask: what about my baby?

On Her Turf: Track and field has a long history of social justice activism, and you’ve been very vocal about issues of racial injustice on social media and elsewhere. What progress have you seen around race and sports in America, and what still needs to be done?

Richards-Ross: At the end of the day, if you’re an athlete, you cannot separate your human experience from your sporting success. People keep saying, We don’t want to have to deal with that when we’re watching sports. Well, as a Black person in America, we deal with this every day. And I think it’s so disingenuous as a human being, when you have a platform, not to use it to shine a light or to make a difference in whatever way you can.

I know it’s not easy. I’m so happy there has been a huge shift now where companies are embracing athletes for using their platform, but for a very long time, athletes were afraid to say anything that would ruffle feathers. Especially if you’re an Olympic athlete – the window is so small, the opportunities are so minimal – that most athletes would prefer to just stay quiet, even if their hearts rumbled with disappointment or if they are having these experiences themselves. That’s why I’m so proud and so happy with how far we’ve come, where athletes like LeBron James and Serena Williams are able to speak up and tell their truths. Black people are having a really difficult time when it comes to police brutality, limited resources and access. It’s just telling the truth.

I think we’re headed in the right direction. Many times since George Floyd’s death, the activism hasn’t felt like a moment. It feels like a movement, where many people are actively trying to work against racism, actively trying to hold the door open for other minority groups. This is not just a Black issue. We’re seeing a really difficult time right now for our Asian brothers and sisters. This is all minorities – we want to see all of us treated fairly. I’m hopeful for a better world for my son. He’s three years old now – hopefully when he’s 18 or 19 years old, he’ll be proud of the progress we made in 2020 and 2021.

RELATED: Morgan Hurd’s impassioned speech at anti-AAPI violence rally (video)

On Her Turf: Speaking of your son… Your husband is retired NFL cornerback Aaron Ross. How do you two feel when someone like DK Metcalf runs really fast and you hear the debate about football speed vs track and field speed?

Richards-Ross: The good thing is when you have a track star and a football player in the same house, the football player knows the deal. My husband always says: People just don’t know. He used to do workouts with me and say This is bananas! We would do repeat 200-meter sprints. I’d do one 200 and I’d get a few minutes rest and then hit it again, really fast, and he thought he could do them all with me. But then he’d stop and wait until I’d done two more and then jump back in. So he has a good appreciation for sprint speed, strength and stamina.

When you’re super athletic and you’re great at one thing, you think it just crosses over and it doesn’t. I have a great appreciation for all other sports, but I also know how much technique and practice comes into play when you see Usain Bolt or Trayvon Bromell running under 10 seconds.

On Her Turf: World 200m champion Dina Asher-Smith (GBR) wrote a piece for The Player’s Tribune this spring about the unique challenges for female athletes and how sponsors, media and others can better support them. How have you seen those challenges play out in your time on the track?

Richards-Ross: I’ve loved to see Dina Asher-Smith and her brand evolve and develop. I think she’s doing a great job of embracing all the beauty of being an athlete. Like I’ve said, representation matters. It’s important for young Black women to see themselves in other Black women.

I look at someone like a Dawn Harper-Nelson, who won the Olympic gold medal in the 100m hurdles in 2008. In interviews, she’s talked about being a dark-skinned woman in sports and my heart breaks, because there was no reason that Dawn Harper-Nelson couldn’t be bigger than life. She thought that if she won the Olympics, here would come all these sponsorships and all these partnerships, but it didn’t happen, outside of her Nike partnership.

For women it’s not just about winning – it’s about winning and looking beautiful, speaking well – so many other expectations that our male counterparts don’t have. I think the challenge to sponsors and the community is to honor the excellence, to look beyond whatever standards of beauty we may have and just honor the women that are doing great work. Give them the platform and the opportunity so that other young women who look like them can see that it is enough to just be excellent, because I think that’s the liberty and the freedom our male counterparts already enjoy.

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2022 Rivalry Series: USA extends lead to 3-0 over Canada in women’s hockey showcase

Hilary Knight #21 of Team United States reacts after scoring a shorthanded goal in the second period during the Women's Ice Hockey Gold Medal match.
Getty Images

Hilary Knight had two goals and one assist to lead the U.S. women’s hockey team to a 4-2 win over Canada on Sunday, extending Team USA’s series lead to 3-0 in the seven-game 2022-23 Rivalry Series.

Savannah Harmon and Abby Roque also scored for the U.S., which has notched three consecutive wins against Canada for the first time since 2019. Goalie Nicole Hensley made 22 saves in front of a record-setting crown at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, where fan attendance totaled 14,551.

Marie-Philip Poulin and Sarah Nurse scored for Canada, which captured gold \at both the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September and the Beijing Olympics in February.

Knight has enjoyed a standout 2022-23 Rivalry Series to date, registering six points (three goals, three assists) in the first three games including the game-winning goal in a shootout victory in Game 1 of the series on Tuesday and the game-winning assist in Game 2 on Thursday. Prior to the puck drop in Seattle on Sunday, Knight was presented with a golden stick to commemorate her record-breaking 87th career point in world championship play. Knight became the all-time points leader at the IIHF Women’s World Championship in September, when the eight-time world champion recorded one goal and one assist in Team USA’s 12-1 quarterfinal win over Hungary.

Sunday’s matchup between the U.S. and Canada marked the third game of the 2022-23 Rivalry Series and was the third matchup between the two teams in five days. The U.S. came in with a 2-0 series lead following a 2-1 victory on Thursday in Kamloops, B.C., and a 4-3 shootout victory — the first shootout in Rivalry Series history — in Kelowna, B.C., on Tuesday. It also was the first game for the U.S. national team on home soil since Dec. 17, 2021, when the team hosted Canada in St. Louis (Canada won 3-2 in overtime).

The 2022-23 Rivalry Series continues next month with two games in the U.S., set to be played in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and Los Angeles on Dec. 19.

2022-23 Rivalry Series schedule, results

Tuesday, Nov. 15 USA 4, CAN 3 (SO) Kelowna, British Columbia NHL Network
Thursday, Nov. 17 USA 2, CAN 1 Kamloops, British Columbia NHL Network
Sunday, Nov. 20 USA 4, CAN 2 Seattle, Washington NHL Network
Thursday, Dec. 15 10 p.m. ET Henderson, Nevada NHL Network
Monday, Dec. 19 10 p.m. ET Los Angeles, California NHL Network

What is the Rivalry Series?

The Rivalry Series was introduced by USA Hockey and Hockey Canada during the 2018-19 season and designed as an annual showcase of the highest level of women’s hockey at various locations in the United States and Canada. The first series comprised three games between the two national teams, with Canada winning 2-1. Team USA took 2019-20 title, winning the expanded five-game series 4-1 and wrapping with an overtime win in the finale in front of a then-record-breaking total of 13,320 fans in Anaheim, California.

Following a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic and preparation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the Rivalry Series resumed this season with seven games over three months: three in November, two in December and two in February.

The U.S. and Canada have battled in the gold-medal game of six of seven Winter Olympics and 20 of 21 IIHF Women’s World Championship, with the two exceptions being the 2019 World Championship and 2006 Olympics. The Canadian women are the reigning Olympic and world champions.

2022-23 Rivalry Series rewind: USA takes Games 1-2

Game 1 recap: USA 4, CAN 3, SO (Nov. 15): The series kicked off Tuesday with Team USA grabbing a 2-0 lead off goals from Hannah Brandt and Hilary Knight. But Canada battled back with three unanswered goals and held a 3-2 lead with 13 minutes to go in the third. With just 1:29 remaining in regulation, Alex Carpenter tied it for the Americans, sending the game to overtime. The U.S. ultimately won in a shootout, with Knight and Carpenter scoring while U.S. goalie Nicole Hensley made two key saves.

Game 2 recap: USA 2, CAN 1 (Nov. 17): Canada was first to get on the board Thursday when Marie-Philip Poulin capitalized off a penalty shot opportunity in the second period, but USA’s Kendall Coyne Schofield knotted the score just 1:12 later. Alex Carpenter scored the go-ahead tally with 6:36 remaining in the third to give the U.S. a 2-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. U.S. goalie Maddie Rooney recorded 19 saves in net.

Who’s playing in the 2022-23 Rivalry Series?

Team USA’s roster — led by coach John Wroblewski — for the November Rivalry Series games features 23 players, 16 of whom were part of the silver medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship in August:

  • Hannah Brandt (Vadnais Heights, Minn.)
  • Alex Carpenter (North Reading, Mass.)
  • Kendall Coyne Schofield (Palos Heights, Ill.)
  • Jincy Dunne (O’Fallon, Mo.)
  • Aerin Frankel(Chappaqua, N.Y.)
  • Rory Guilday (Minnetonka, Minn.)
  • Savannah Harmon (Downers Grove, Ill.)
  • Nicole Hensley (Lakewood, Colo.)
  • Megan Keller (Farmington Hills, Mich.)
  • Amanda Kessel (Madison, Wis.)
  • Hilary Knight (Sun Valley, Idaho)
  • Kelly Pannek (Plymouth, Minn.)
  • Abby Roque (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.)
  • Hayley Scamurra (Getzville, N.Y.)
  • Maddie Rooney (Andover, Minn.)
  • Lee Stecklein (Roseville, Minn.).

Team Canada’s 23-player roster, selected by coach Troy Ryan and director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury, features 16 players who were on the gold medal-winning team at the 2022 IIHF Women’s World Championship and the 2022 Beijing Olympics (Canada beat , including:

  • Erin Ambrose
  • Kristen Campbell
  • Emily Clark
  • Ann-Renée Desbiens
  • Renata Fast
  • Brianne Jenner
  • Jocelyne Larocque
  • Emma Maltais
  • Emerance Maschmeyer
  • Sarah Nurse
  • Marie-Philip Poulin
  • Jamie Lee Rattray
  • Ella Shelton
  • Laura Stacey
  • Blayre Turnbull
  • Micah Zandee-Hart

Rivalry Series history

Following Sunday’s victory, the U.S. holds a 6-2-1-2 (W-OTW-OTL-L) record over Canada all time in the Rivalry Series. Canada won the 2018-19 Rivalry Series with a 2-0-0-1 record, while the U.S. won the 2019-20 Rivalry Series with a 3-1-1-0 record.

2019-20 Rivalry Series results

Dec. 14, 2019 USA 4, CAN 1 Hartford, Connecticut Alex Cavallini
Dec. 17, 2019 USA 2, CAN 1 Moncton, N.B. Alex Carpenter
Feb. 3, 2020 CAN 3, USA 2 (OT) Victoria, B.C. Hilary Knight
Feb. 5, 2020 USA 3, CAN 1 Vancouver, B.C. Katie Burt
Feb. 8, 2020 USA 4, CAN 3 (OT) Anaheim, California Megan Bozek

2018-19 Rivalry Series results

Feb. 12 USA 1, CAN 0 London, Ontario
Feb. 14 CAN 4, USA 3 Toronto, Ontario
Feb. 17 CAN 2, USA 0 Detroit Michigan

Atthaya Thitikul takes LPGA rookie-of-year honors in stride ahead of Tour Championship

Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand smiles after the birdie on the 6th green during the second round of the TOTO Japan Classic.
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To say that Atthaya Thitikul has enjoyed a breakout rookie LPGA season is a bit of an understatement, but keeping things low-key is exactly how 19-year-old “Jeeno” likes it.

As the 2022 season concludes this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, Thitikul has already captured two LPGA titles, held the No. 1 spot in the world rankings and collected the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year honors. But the current world No. 2 displays a wise-beyond-her-years ethos when she says what she’s most proud of this season is her mindset.

“[I’m]19 years old — I think I’m still young to handle all the things that I have now,” Thitikul told On Her Turf ahead of this week’s season finale in Naples, Fla. “I didn’t say that I handled it well, but I’ve just said that I think I can handle it. I can do it. And yeah, it’s turned out to be pretty good this year.”

To keep herself in check, the Thailand native keeps her philosophy posted on her Instagram profile, which reads, “Be you, be happy and everything will be fine.” Thitikul, who on Oct. 31 joined 18-time LPGA winner Lydia Ko as the only players in tour history to reach No. 1 before their 20th birthday, said she took stock of poor performances on the golf course and found they all had one thing in common: She wasn’t being herself.

“I didn’t have fun,” she says of those unsatisfactory rounds. “I was expecting a lot of results on the golf course, not really talking, not really enjoying it. So I think being myself, have fun, keep smiling, keep laughing and talking with other players or talking with my caddie, joking around — I think it’s the best that I can do.”

Golf has always been fun for Thitikul, who grew up in northeast Thailand and was introduced to the sport at age 6 through her father and grandfather, both of whom were not golfers themselves but recognized the opportunity that golf might provide. Thitikul teases that her grandfather was enamored with Tiger Woods, but after her first golf experience with a professional in Bangkok, she was hooked, too.

“They asked me when I finished practicing, do I like it? And I say, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Because [there were] a lot of friends and when I practice, it seemed fun and it seemed not like other sports that I have been watching on TV,” she recalls.

Thitikul’s ascent to the top of her sport was swift: In February 2017, just three days after her 14th birthday, she made her first LPGA tournament appearance at the Honda LPGA Thailand and finished 37th out of 66 players. Just five months later, Thitikul made headlines when she became the youngest person ever to win a professional golf tour event at age 14 years, 4 months and 19 days old, winning the Ladies European Thailand Championship on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

RELATED: 2022 CME Group Tour Championship — How to watch, who’s playing in LPGA’s season finale

For three more years, Thitikul resisted turning professional, racking up multiple international amateur victories and plenty of tour experience, notching her first LPGA top-10 finish in March 2018 at the HSBC Women’s World Championship (T-8) and earning low amateur honors that same year at two majors, the ANA Inspiration (T-30) and Women’s British Open (T-64). The following year, she won the Ladies European Thailand Championship for the second time in three years, earned low amateur honors at the British Open (finishing T-29) for the second straight year and was No. 1 on the women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking.

In her first year as a pro, during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, Thitikul broke through for her first professional win in July at the Thai LPGA Championship. She finished the season with five Thai LPGA wins and topped the money list.

Thitikul moved to the LET in 2021, winning the Czech Ladies Open in June, and just a month later she moved into the top 100 on the world rankings for the first time at No. 89. She finished 2021 with two wins, three runner-ups and nine additional top-10 finishes, securing the LET Order of Merit and Rookie of the Year titles and becoming just the fourth player to win both awards in the same season.

After finishing third at LPGA Qualifying School to earn her card for 2022, Thitikul didn’t miss a beat in her meteoric rise this season. She posted two top-10s in her first four starts before striking a staff deal with Callaway, which she followed up by winning her first LPGA title in March at the JTBC Classic. She carded an 8-under 64 in the final round to force a playoff and Nanna Koerstz Madsen on the second extra hole. She earned her second LPGA title in September at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, tying the tournament record of 61 in the second round and beating Danielle Kang in a playoff.

As for the pressure of being a teen phenom, Thitikul admits she can’t ignore it but has figured out how to turn it around to her advantage: “It’s still so hard because I think as players want to be on top and we put the pressure on ourselves, and there’s a lot of eyes on us. … But at the same time, it’s kind of like you couldn’t win every week, you couldn’t have a good day every day. It’s golf. I like to think of pressure as a challenge. I put a lot of pressure on myself, but I think of it as challenging.”

Away from the golf course, Thitikul enjoys spending time with friends, watching Korean television dramas and indulging in Asian food (Chinese and Korean are favorites). Although she doesn’t have a pet, she says she’s a dog person, and prefers the mountains to the beach, as she loves to hike.

But don’t expect too much lounging, hiking or other non-golf activities on Thitikul’s itinerary after this season wraps on Sunday.

“This offseason, we have a lot of work to do,” she says.” There are a lot of things I still have to learn – not just for next year but for [beyond.] … But hopefully next year, it’s going to be nice and good for me as well. I really want to have a major win in my career. I don’t know if it’s going to happen next year, but hopefully.”