Beijing native leads US to table tennis success
BEIJING (AP) When Wang Chen came to Beijing, she began her final preparations for the Olympics by practicing on a pingpong table in her dad's office.
A native of the city and a veteran of the indomitable Chinese national table tennis team, Wang is representing the U.S. at the Olympics. In America, where pingpong is known more for its diplomatic successes, athletes often have to rely on themselves when it comes to training and competitions.
"It was really tough," Wang said. "I trained on that one table, it's where the bosses in my dad's work unit play. I found some European players who were on break to play with me."
The hard work paid off - world No. 23 Wang became the first American to reach the quarterfinals of table tennis at the Olympics on Thursday after beating No. 11 Kim Kyung-ah of South Korea.
After going to seven games and scoring the last point, Wang fell to her knees and burst into tears.
"To get to the final eight in the Olympics, it really wasn't easy," she said. "To win this game, I really put forth my biggest effort."
Previously, the best finish for the U.S. was when teammate Gao Jun reached the round of 32 in singles and doubles at the Athens Games in 2004. In the quarterfinals later Thursday, Wang lost to Li Jia Wei of Singapore.
Wang and Gao both played on the Chinese national team and immigrated to the U.S. after retiring from the squad. In the U.S., they've found a low-pressure situation much different from that in Beijing, where the best players from around China are constantly jostling for a spot on the team.
"Representing the U.S., it's much more relaxed. It's not like China where you have to win the gold, it's a different mentality," Wang said. "The mentality is, we do the best we can. There's no pressure."
Wang, 34, played on the China team from 1993 to 1998 and moved to the U.S. in 2000 to be closer to her sister in New Jersey. In 2004 she opened a pingpong club in New York City, and obtained her U.S. citizenship two years later. These days, the club named after her is so popular there are three other coaches to work with the students, of which there are "too many to count."
Returning to Beijing, Wang found the fans in her hometown as warm as ever.
"For so many people to be cheering for me, I felt like I was still a Chinese athlete. Everyone was pulling for me, they were all speaking Chinese," she said. "At one point, one girl shouted really loud and it made me mess up my shot."
The Chinese have a heavy presence in the Olympic table tennis event. Of the 78 female competitors, 35 - or 45 percent - were born in China. Only three play for the Chinese team.
The eight women in the quarterfinals were all born in China. Besides Wang and the three athletes representing the host country, the competition also includes Singapore's Feng Tianwei and Li, Tie Yana of Hong Kong and Wu Xue of the Dominican Republic.
Wu also made history Thursday by reaching the quarterfinals, the best result ever for a table tennis athlete from the tiny Caribbean nation.
In the end, Wang could not match up in her quarterfinal contest with Li, an attacking player who is seven years younger and ranked sixth in the world.
"In terms of energy I couldn't keep up. This morning wore me out and I didn't sleep this afternoon and I felt so tired," Wang said. "I think if I could have played this game tomorrow I could have done better."
Wang is retiring after the Olympics, eager to return to New York, the club and her husband, Forrest Zhou, a doctoral student.
She said she's ready to embark on a "normal woman's life" - and start having babies.