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Hsing: Don't call it pingpong
Humor me for a moment. Type “YouTube Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang” into Google. Click the second link down, which is the women’s singles final for last year’s US National Table Tennis Championships. It’s a face-off between two of America’s three Olympians in women’s table tennis. Hsing is a 16-year-old from San Jose, Calif., the three-time women’s national champion. Zhang is a 15-year-old from just up Highway 101 in Palo Alto, Calif., and she's just behind Hsing in world junior rankings.
It’s a long video, about 40 minutes, and — spoiler alert — Hsing wins. But click around a bit. See if this game at all resembles the game you play in your basement with your kids or in your college dorm with your friends. Note the lack of beer stains on the table, the ridiculous spin on the serves, the on-and-on-and-on volleys.
Don’t worry. I can wait.
So, yeah. Crazy, right? These girls are ridiculous, and this sport is barely recognizable as the one we affectionately call pingpong. The amazing part? Hsing and Zhang don’t have an ice cube’s chance in hell to medal in London. Maybe, if they keep at it, they could find themselves on the podium in 2016. More likely in 2020. And if either do end up winning a medal at a future Olympics, it’ll strike one more sport off the very short list of summer Olympic sports in which the United States has never won a medal. The other two? Badminton and team handball.
It’s no surprise that the two girls who are the present and the future of American table tennis are Asian-American. Five of the top 10 women in the world are Chinese. Six of the top 10 men are Chinese. And the only American male who is heading to London to play table tennis, 20-year-old Timothy Wang, is also Asian-American and also calls his home club the India Community Center in a suburb of San Jose, the same place where Hsing and Zhang train.
“For the Chinese it’s their national sport,” said Hsing, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Taiwanese. “They take pride in it. They really like watching it. It’s kind of like the NBA in the US. The Americans are good at it, so they like it, and the Chinese are good at table tennis, so they like it.”
“In China or Taiwan,” Hsing continued, “if you play table tennis, it’s the only thing you do. It’s not like in the United States, where you still have to go to school, you still have to get into a good college so you can get a good job. You can’t just rely on table tennis professionally.”
Don’t be shocked, America. Yes, there is a table tennis world tour, and it has annual purses worth about $2.5 million. If Hsing and Zhang have their way, they might find themselves on that world tour at some point. Hsing is 10th in the world in the under-18 rankings, while Zhang is ranked 17th. Other second-generation Asian-Americans are helping build a decent base for the sport in the United States. Hsing started playing competitively at age 7, when her mother started taking her to the only table tennis club around. There are now 15 table tennis clubs in the Bay Area.
Hsing’s claim to sorta-fame is that she’s taught table tennis to both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, or “Uncle Warren” and “Uncle Bill,” as she calls them. But there’s an astounding amount of hard work behind her fame, especially for a sport that Americans are more used to playing in basements than in arenas.
Hsing wakes up at 7 a.m. and practices serving for about 40 minutes before going to school. At lunchtime, her dad picks her up. He brings her lunch (a turkey sandwich from Subway, usually), and she eats it in the car and tries to fit in a nap while he drives her to a local table tennis club. She plays there for two hours, then her dad drives her to a different club, where she plays for another two hours before heading home, doing homework and going to sleep.
“I know I’m not the best athlete,” Hsing said. “I run like a duck. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, but it’s something I have a lot of love for.”
In many ways, Hsing is an average teenager. She loves Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. She loves ice cream and swears she can eat Nutella by the jar. She gets good grades and hopes to go to Stanford.
But between practicing and traveling internationally, table tennis takes up the bulk of her time. She doesn’t really have free time with her friends. Except for her friend Zhang, whom she often travels with to international meets.
The way Hsing sees it, pingpong is the sport everyone in America knows, everyone in America loves, and everyone in America plays in their basement.
Table tennis, however, is a very different sport. Table tennis is intense. It’s exhausting. It takes conditioning. It takes coaching. It takes hours of practicing footwork to be properly positioned on each and every ball.
And if America is ever going to find itself on the podium for table tennis in an Olympics, that’s the version of the sport — not the beer-swilling basement version — that our country will have to play.
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