David Zhuang was no stranger to China
David Zhuang was born in the midsize town of Jiamen, which rests in central China. Since moving to the United States in 1990, he has visited his native country several times each year.
But there was something different about his trip in 2008. He was there for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The reaction of the Chinese fans nearly brought Zhuang to tears and ensured that this trip to China would be one that he never will forget.
"If the Olympics had not been held in China, I would not have bothered trying out for the team," said Zhuang, who was 44 when he competed in Beijing last summer. "But I did it because it was in China and I knew that the Chinese would put every effort into making it one of the best Olympics in history. I did a lot of interviews and got a lot of publicity. It was unbelievable.
"When I was playing, people were calling out my Chinese name. There were a lot of Chinese people like me representing other countries, but most of them weren't getting their names called out like I was and telling me that they were welcoming me home. I did not expect it. I almost teared up. That made it the best Olympics ever for me."
Zhuang had no idea when he started playing the sport at 8 that he would eventually compete in three Olympics.
Like millions of Chinese children, he was attracted to the sport at a young age. He had just picked up the sport around the time of "Ping Pong Diplomacy." In 1971, the United States broke through a foreign relations barrier by sending its table tennis team to China.
By the time he was 11, he started competing. The next year, he attended a table tennis sports school and two years later, he turned professional. At that point, he was training about 42 hours a week.
"I loved table tennis right away," Zhuang said. "I loved the speed of the sport and the more I got into it, I realized that it wasn't just a physical game. A lot of women can beat a lot of men and a lot of short guys can beat a lot of tall guys. It's just a matter of skill and I like that kind of game. And in China, it can give kids a chance at a better life."
Zhuang was introduced to international play in a 1981 match against Japan at Ghuangzhou. He then won the men's singles championship of Guangdong Province in both 1982 and 1986. Along the way, he won 36 consecutive matches against foreign players and placed second in the Chinese National Team Tournament in 1985 and 1989.
He wasn't in China for too much longer, though. His parents moved to the United States, and Zhuang joined them in New Jersey in 1990. And though he knew the journey would automatically give him an opportunity to be the best player in his new country, table tennis had little to do with his decision to make a permanent home halfway around the world.
"I moved to this country not because of the sport," he said. "My whole family had immigrated. I just like the system better in this country. I believe that in this country if you work hard you can get whatever you want to get because you're free. China doesn't have that kind of system."
Zhuang didn't take long to establish himself in America. He reached the national singles finals all but one year from 1992 to 2000. In those eight championship matches, Zhuang won four of them.
But despite his success in the United States, the elite table tennis players in China still dominated on the world stage. Zhuang doesn't believe that the dominance of one country is positive for the game.
"I don't think it's good for the sport," he said. "Right now there's no chance to challenge the Chinese. You can take the best players from all the different countries and play them against the Chinese team and they would still lose 7-2 or 8-1."
Had Zhuang stayed in China, he realizes his career might not have turned out the way it has. Zhuang, now 45, became an American citizen in 1996. That same year, he competed in his first Olympics, in Atlanta. Four years later, Zhuang returned to the Olympics, this time in Sydney, Australia.
"The Olympic stage is huge," Zhuang said. "It was like 'Oh, wow!' in 1996. In 2000, it was, 'Oh, good. I made it again.' ''
In 2003, Zhuang was inducted into the U.S. Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and Zhuang had hoped to continue his Olympic journey to Athens in 2004. But an untimely illness prevented that dream from coming to fruition.
"I was feeling confident and I prepared well,'' Zhuang said. "I went to China to train, but two days before the North American tryout, I got sick and I ended up falling one place short of making the team.''
"In 2008, I again went to China to train and I again got sick,'' Zhuang said. "But it all turned out just right."
The only American male table tennis player to make the trip to Beijing, Zhuang was especially excited about his opportunity to return to his homeland. He traveled there with his wife (and coach) Joannie Fu and their two daughters.
"There has been a tremendous change in China over the last 20 or 30 years, especially economically," Zhuang said. "Now when I travel back to China, my eyes get so big. They are living so much better now than when I lived there. But I still like this country best."
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Marty Gitlin 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.