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Turning tragedy into triumph

During the upcoming semester, if you are feeling down, tired or frustrated and you are looking for some inspiration, think about a 5-foot-2 sixth-year Long Beach State softball player named Panita Thanatharn.

Three years ago, Thanatharn was emerging as one of the best players on the 49ers. In the first seven games of the season, the sophomore outfielder was hitting a godly .526 from the batter’s box and becoming a leader on the team.

On Feb. 9, 2003, in a game against Loyola Marymount at Mayfair Park, Thanatharn found herself in a familiar position. She was on second base, hoping for a chance to tie the game if she could score.

She got her chance when teammate Lauren Johnson smacked the ball past her and into center field.

The speedy Thanatharn bolted around third base and headed home. Once she got to the plate, she slid to score and then – snap.

The LMU catcher was blocking the plate and Thanatharn slid into her. The result was horrific.

“Call 911,” yelled the LBSU trainer as he rushed onto the field.

But it didn’t take a trainer to know something far beyond a standard softball injury had just occurred. Parts of the human body that many people only see when their in biology class were sticking out of Thanatharn’s left leg. She had severely fractured her tibia and fibula.

“I was in the worst pain of my life,” Thanatharn said. “I was majoring in exercise science, so I knew exactly what happened. I had a compound fracture.”

Kim Sowder, who is now the head softball coach at LBSU, was an assistant for the 49ers in 2003.

“It was the worst injury I have ever seen,” Sowder said. “You never want that to happen to anyone, but for it to happen to Panita, who was our hardest worker and was off to a great start to the season, it made it even more difficult. I couldn’t sleep at all that night.”

An ambulance quickly came to the field to rush Thanatharn to the hospital. That’s where she stayed for the next 10 days, but even then, with her leg in disarray, she had one main thought on her mind.

“I kept asking the doctors when I could play softball again,” Thanatharn said. “One doctor said six months, another said a year, but I don’t think they really knew. They just answered the question to try and keep me happy.”

After getting out of the hospital, Thanatharn was still bedridden for about another 20 days before she was able to go back to school.

That’s when she met the person she now calls her mentor, professor Kevin Sverduk.

“We started working on things like imagery and goal setting and it helped me through the process in my comeback,” Thanatharn said.

As Sverduk helped Thanatharn with the mental side of her recovery, the physical side wasn’t going as planned.

After six months, the injury wasn’t healing properly, so she had surgery that put screws into her leg and foot in an effort to put the bones back together.

Even with the setback, Thanatharn’s confidence concerning playing softball again didn’t waiver.

“I always had no doubt I was coming back,” Thanatharn said. “Everyone around me was very supportive and helped me through the process.”

Like a soldier wounded on the battlefield, the LBSU softball program stuck by its injured player.

“There was never any talk about taking away her scholarship,” Sowder said. “Panita has been very loyal to the program and we stay loyal to our student athletes.”

Thanatharn’s mental toughness was tested in 2004 as she was forced to sit out the entire season. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t part of the team.

She traveled with the team and helped out however she could.

Her goal, though, was to play again. Day after day she continued her rehabilitation and in 2005 she was back on the field.

“The major reason I was able to make my recovery was that I got mentally stronger,” Thanatharn said.

Playing Division I softball again, in of itself, was a minor miracle, but once she started playing again she realized just being out there wasn’t good enough.

“It felt really good to be back,” Thanatharn said. “But it was a really tough season. Before I got hurt I was playing as well as I ever had, but after the injury I couldn’t do the things I used to as well.”

After the season she continued to work on improving her leg and in 2006 she raised her batting average to .225, 75 points higher than the season before.

It was expected that the 2006 season was going to be her last, but near the end of the season Thanatharn went into her coach’s office and said she wanted to play one more year.

“I wasn’t ready to be done yet,” Thanatharn said. “I had to petition the NCAA for another year of eligibility and I found out this fall that I would be allowed to play this season.”

Her injury didn’t hinder her studies. Thanatharn has already received degrees in exercise science and sport psychology; she is now working on her masters in sport management as she plays her final season at LBSU.

“I just love softball and being on this team,” Thanatharn said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next year.”

The 2007 season will start on Feb. 9, which ironically will be the third anniversary of when Thanatharn broke her leg. What happened at home plate that day changed her life, but it certainly didn’t ruin it.

“It was one of the worst things, yet in some ways, one of the best things to ever happen to me.”

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