Small girl, big potential
About a month ago, Lily Zhang's seventh-grade history teacher at Jordan Middle School challenged her to a game of ping-pong.
Usually, it's the teacher who provides the student with an education. In this case, it was the other way around.
And the teacher quickly learned his lesson.
Zhang, 12, quickly disposed of Mr. LaSala in six games to 11, as about 25 people stood around the school's table and watched.
"I let him have a few points," a giggling Zhang said of her favorite teacher.
She might be young, and she might be small --- she's 5-feet tall and weighs just 81 pounds --- but many believe Zhang could be the "next big thing" in American table tennis.
"You don't get somebody like this every year, it's maybe every 10 years that you get somebody like this," said Doru Gheorghe, a former national team table tennis competitor in his native Romania and currently the coach of the USA Table Tennis national team. "We haven't had such a talented girl in a long time in the U.S. I have been here for about 11 years, and I haven't seen such talent."
Zhang is the national champion in both cadet (under 15) and junior (under 18) ranks and is among the top 10 players in the country overall, Gheorghe said. She also qualified for the senior national team in 2009.
He also speculated that the seventh grader was the youngest competitor at the World Table Tennis Championships this spring in Yokohama, Japan. Zhang was selected to join the five-person Team USA as a coach's choice. USA Table Tennis funded the top four athletes, with the fourth spot going to a coach's choice, usually an athlete with potential.
"It was a really good opportunity, and it was really cool because I got to watch all the really good players," Zhang said. "It was really fun to watch them because you can learn new things and you can meet new people."
Zhang, of Palo Alto, Calif., competed in the doubles, mixed doubles and singles competition. She and partner Ariel Hsing won their first match in doubles, and along with Timothy Wang, she won their first mixed doubles game as well.
Not bad for a kid who picked up the sport five years ago, at the ripe old age of 7.
"I thought I did pretty well, but it was my first adult international, so the arena was really big and I kind of wasn't used to it for my first match," Zhang said. "It got better. In singles, the first match I played was with Croatia, so I wasn't too used to it, but then in the end I got pretty comfortable playing, so I thought I did pretty well overall."
"She did very well for the first time in such a big event," he said. "She was overexcited, OK. She was thrilled watching and seeing all those table tennis stars. Seeing all those players in flesh and blood was for her really exciting.
"She did really well, she was not scared at all playing at the table, but it was a different level than she has played before. These players are experienced and have played on national teams, but she was a 12-year-old playing on this level for the first time. But she did very well and was not scared at all."
Gheorghe said Zhang has been on his radar for about two or three years, but he didn't actually work with her until the recent world championships.
"We knew that she was coming," Gheorghe said.
Zhang quickly has made her presence known.
"She had a good touch for the ball, she can move the ball wherever she wants. It's a skill, good coordination and touch,'' he said. "This is something that you are born with. Some players compensate [for] it with a lot of work, but some are just born with this.
"She works hard,'' Gheorghe added. "It's not like she doesn't work, but she is so young and she is there."
Zhang has a few more weeks left of school before heading for a one-month trip to China, where she will train and play in some junior tournaments.
"They have more players there and they also practice a lot more than we do here in the U.S.," Zhang said.
After that she returns home and then heads to Canada for the North American Championships, all before heading back to the Bay Area and starting her eighth-grade year.
Her eventual goal is to compete in the Olympics, perhaps as early as the 2012 Games in London. Gheorghe said she has the potential to eventually be a top-20 player in the world and even an Olympic medalist. But he particularly focused on that one word: potential.
"She has real potential, but to succeed there are certain amount of hours and high level training and playing a lot of top level tournaments," he said. "It's like tennis, it takes time to participate in many high level events, to get used to other players, to improve yours skills, to get strong mentally, then you start winning. It takes many years to improve your skills."
Outside of the sport, Zhang tries to be a pretty typical preteen. She loves to read and hang out with her friends, and she really enjoys Mr. LaSala's history class.
For table tennis, Zhang works out about 18 hours per week, but she has the drive to succeed and willingly sacrifices her spare time to practice table tennis.
Gheorghe sees a future strong U.S. team with Zhang as the cornerstone, but at the same time, he realizes that a lot can change throughout her teenage years. He says Zhang has the family support and drive to succeed; now he just hopes she can continue her progression.
"I hope she is going to stay and follow this direction,'' Gheorghe said. "Like I said, the family environment is good, they support her, they follow the schedule; it's good. I hope it's going to stay the same."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Chrös McDougall is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.
Additional words from the sidelines:
Pop and hip hop music. Ne-Yo, Justin Timberlake, or Ciara might be on her iPod today.
"Facebook and I have a phone. I don't go on facebook that often, maybe just once or twice a week I go on there for an hour, or a half hour to look at pictures or chat."
"I guess (China table tennis player) Zhang Yining, because she is my idol and she is really good and stuff, and I'd also like to meet Michael Phelps, because I think he is really good."
*Note, she met Zhang Yining at the 2009 World Championships and they took a picture together.
Favorite Olympic Sport:
Swimming, diving and gymnastics.
Favorite Olympic Moment:
"I like watching people get their medals because I know they must be really happy and I know they must have worked really hard to get them."