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Ariel Hsing: Table Manners

By Chrös McDougall | June 21, 2012, 10 a.m. (ET)

Ariel HsingAriel Hsing, seen here competing at the 2011 Pan American Games, will look to qualify for Team USA in table tennis at the 2012 London Games.

For Michael Hsing, it was ice cream.

If his daughter, table tennis phenom Ariel Hsing, had to give up her favorite foods and free time with her friends in her quest to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team, a little shared sacrifice from dad couldn’t be so hard. 

Could it?

“The thing about my dad and ice cream,” Ariel Hsing began, setting the tone for the serious admission, “is that my dad has never gone three days without ice cream.”

Yet for the six months leading up to the Olympic qualification tournament in April, when Ariel punched her ticket to London, Michael indeed stayed away from the trademark vanilla that has been his primary dairy source since he was a boy.

“So as soon as I made the team, finally, that day I said, ‘You can finally have some ice cream,’ ” recalled Ariel, who also treated herself to a Nutella cookie.

The Nutella, however, was a rare respite for the 16-year-old from San Jose, Calif. In her quest to first make the Olympic Team and next to win the United States’ first Olympic medal in the sport, the high school-senior-to-be has given up “everything I like to eat.”

Anything fried? Gone.

Chocolate lava cake with vanilla ice cream? Gone.

Nutella? That one hurts the most.

“The joys of Nutella, there’s too many to count!” groaned Hsing, who calls herself more of a bread-with-Nutella girl than a Nutella-with-bread girl. “They say Nutella can be good for you,” she added, “but not if you can finish an entire jar in two days.”

So Hsing, reluctantly, gave up the chocolaty hazelnut spread and most of her other favorite foods. In their place are healthier foods, such as salads, which she began eating at age 13.

“Before that I ate zero vegetables at all,” she said.

That the 16-year-old food lover was willing to give up fried food and sweets at an age when many peers survive on them only speaks to Hsing’s dedication to her ultimate passion: table tennis.

Hsing is a rising star in the sport, and also a leader in a new generation of U.S. table tennis. Of the three women who qualified for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, Hsing is the oldest — Lily Zhang and Erica Wu were both 15 — and including men’s Olympic nominee Timothy Wang, 20, all four are American-born. That is a change from previous years, when U.S. Olympians were often expats who were born, raised, trained and sometimes competed for other countries first.

Although none of the quad will be favorites in London — Hsing is the highest ranked among them at No. 137 as of June 1 — the future is looking bright for the sport; of those under 18, Hsing is ranked No. 14. 

Hsing has already made quite a name for herself at home.

After all, how many people can casually refer to their friends “Uncle Warren” and “Uncle Bill” and mean Warren Buffett and Bill Gates?

Hsing can — and does.

The unlikely friendship began when the then-9-year-old Hsing was invited to play table tennis buff and billionaire Buffett, along with Microsoft founder and fellow billionaire Gates, at Buffett’s 75th birthday party in San Francisco. Later, on the drive home, Hsing asked her parents why the two rich men weren’t there. She hadn’t realized that Uncle Warren and Uncle Bill were actually those billionaires.

“Because they were so down to earth and so humble and nice,” said Hsing, who has since played the world’s No. 2 and 3 richest men again at Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting. “You can’t tell at all.”

Table tennis tournaments and training camps have taken Hsing all around the world, but the bubbly teenager has tried not to let the sport define her. When she recently switched to Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Hsing initially kept her elite table tennis career to herself. It was only when a film crew showed up to follow Hsing around that her friends finally figured out why she was traveling so often.

So why hide it? Was she embarrassed by her success in a sport most Americans know only from basements and garages.

“I definitely was not embarrassed,” she said. “I’m not going to be embarrassed about something I love doing and I’m passionate about. It was really just, I didn’t want people to think that ‘Oh, I’m like this,’ but I just wanted to keep a low key. I didn’t really feel the urge to tell anyone. There was no reason, in my opinion.”

Nobody is forgetting who she is now. The school even held a pep rally for Hsing after she qualified for the Olympic Games. The winners of a lunchtime table tennis tournament got to play her during the rally.

“When I made the Olympic team all my friends were super excited; my teachers were so happy for me,” she said. “It was just a lot of congratulations and support.”

Although elite table tennis understandably takes up a lot of Hsing’s time — she trains two or three times each day, often at two different Bay Area clubs — she has been able to maintain some normalcy. School, where Hsing takes various honors and advanced placement courses, is still her top priority, and this spring she was able to attend the junior prom.

For now, she just can’t have Nutella.

“There’s a lot more sacrifices then that of course, and that’s just a minor one,” Hsing said of her Nutella. “I think mostly what I’ve sacrificed is free time, hanging out with friends; I don’t really get to do that a lot. I don’t really get time to watch TV or anything like that. 

“I definitely think it’s worth it though, because of the opportunities it’s given me. I just feel really, really blessed.”

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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