36-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 27, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 36, July 27 - Table Tennis Has Taught Ariel Hsing How to Persevere

“I did sacrifice many things for table tennis, but if I had to do it all over again, I would. A million times.” 

Ariel HsingYesterday sportswriter Alan Abrahamson suggested that a key to popularizing table tennis in the United States would include having an American who could draw the media’s attention.  One athlete has done so already: Ariel Hsing.  Today the Countdown visits with her about her start in table tennis up through her current participation in the China Table Tennis Super League. 

Before we get into this interview, let’s take a look at an article by Wang Jisheng that recently ran in the People’s Daily.  Your mother Xin Jiang obtained the author’s permission to re-post it and your father Michael Hsing was gracious enough to translate it.  I thank Volker Schroder for also facilitating various elements of our interview.  

Your father included a message from the author, “This article has generated a lot of feedback from the Chinese media.”    

Bring Textbooks to the Super League: 
Chinese-American Champion Ariel Hsing

On June 18, 2014 in Jinhua, China, the China Table Tennis Super League (CTTSL) was in its 7th round action. Home team Jinhua Bank was facing Shandong, Luneng. To tantalize the audience, the home team sent its foreign aid Ariel Hsing to face Olympic Champion Li Xiaoxia; two years ago at the London Olympics, the then 16 years old Ariel surprisingly advanced into the third round and almost defeated Li but finally lost 2:4. Would there be a miracle this time? Facing the Olympic Champion, Ariel was fearless and gave all she had. Even though she lost 0:3, she had wowed the audience with her fighting spirit.

Balancing between school and sports; airplanes and court side are her classrooms

Eighteen year old Ariel Hsing was born in San Francisco, USA.  She is the 2013 U.S. National Women's Singles, Women's Doubles, and Mixed Doubles champion.  She qualified for the US National Cadet team at age 10, and now is a freshman at the prestigious Princeton University.  What's her secret to advance both academically and athletically has always been reporters' favorite question. 

"I have to study more in college and had to skip this year's table tennis World Championships," Hsing answered. "During middle and high school, I often asked teachers to give me homework in advance so I can finish it before going on a tournament trip. It's common for me to study on airplanes or court side. Homework and studies have to be done. There is no excuse. I once had to bring a big envelope with the exams inside to a tournament, and the U.S. coach had to be the proctor watching me taking the exam between matches, and then mailed it back to my school. It was very tough." 

"I don't have as much training time as the Chinese players, so I have to really concentrate on both studying and training in order not to waste any time. I also have to practice smarter and use some unconventional methods. I would put my computer and phone away while studying so I would not be tempted to browse online or chat with my friends." 

"I won't let table tennis training impact my school work since I understand very well that unlike basketball or football, table tennis is not yet a major sport in the U.S.  It's an extracurricular activity that can show one's grit and tenacity. It can help with the college application, but school achievement and test scores are still the most important factors. I chose Princeton not only because it's an excellent school but also because it has a table tennis club, and I plan to major in economics and minor in computer science. "

To complete college is her responsibility; to compete in Olympics is her dream

Ariel has been to China many times to train and to compete. She first showed her desire to play in the CTTSL two years ago, which got China Cyber "Wan Yunliang's" attention (who later became Ariel's agent,) and connected her with the Jinhua Bank/Jinhua Press club. Also thanks to the school summer break fitting into the league's schedule, Ariel was finally able to make the trip and became the first-ever player from America to play in the Super League.   Ariel described the whole experience as "extremely lucky" and didn't forget to bring some computer science textbooks with her for the trip. 

"Education is very important to me, and graduating from college is my minimum goal." Ariel clearly positioned herself as a college athlete. "I am so fortunate to have this opportunity playing in this China Super League, and I will treasure it dearly. I will give the best I have and am looking forward to practicing and learning from my teammates." 

"My long-term goal is to participate in the 2016 Olympics, and hopefully to get a medal for the U.S. I know this seems like an impossible dream since players from China are literally unbeatable. But the reason I play table tennis is to challenge myself, so I'll just keep practicing and practicing, and then hope for the best." 

One of the reporters asked, "Do you plan to take a leave of absence from school?"  

"I will only do that if I feel comfortable with my academic advancement." Ariel's reply surprised the reporters. Obviously, she still puts school first.

Promoting table tennis is her calling, moving the Super League to the U.S. is her desire

"Many Americans play table tennis.  There are tables everywhere: garages, backyards, basements -- you name it. But most of them have never watched a real match, like the matches played by the Chinese team. My classmates in college encourage me to keep playing, but they can't tell a professional player from a novice.  Some guys practiced for a couple days then claimed they could beat me. I decided to play along and let them win first, and then showed them what real table tennis is." 

"I have sacrificed many things, like my childhood, for table tennis. But table tennis also opened many doors for me.  I have had these amazing opportunities to have made many good friends from many different countries and cultures. If I could live my life again, I still would choose table tennis." 

"I will do my best to promote table tennis, especially for kids. Everyone can enjoy and benefit from this sport, no matter if one is 6 or 96 years old. We had only one local club when I first started, and now we have more than ten! There are more and more people in the U.S. playing table tennis now." 

Because of table tennis, Ariel got acquainted with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. In 2006, the then nine-year-old Ariel made her name by playing against Buffett and Gates at Buffett's birthday party, and it has become a ritual for Ariel to play at the annual Berkshire Hathaway meeting with Buffett and share holders. Bill Gates is also a table tennis fan and once flew to London to watch Ariel's Olympic match. 

The leadership from Jinhua Bank and Jinhua Press expresses: we have considered both the culture and marketing value when inviting Ariel joining the Jinhua team. We intend to open a new page of ping pong diplomacy, and promote Jinhua city's international image.  We are also in development of sponsoring some Jinhua students to study at Ariel's school: Princeton University. Ariel's agent is also connecting with a U.S. club to move some Super League matches to the U.S. for next season." 

USA Table Tennis supports Ariel's participation in the China Super League and welcomes Super League matches to the U.S. soil. Ariel is now playing a critical role at promoting this cultural exchange between the two countries.  She believes moving the Super League to the USA is as important as moving NBA matches to China. 

Chinese Table Tennis Association Vice Chairman, former world champion, national team coach, Lu Yuansheng said he had guided Ariel's game when he visited the USA in 2007, and has followed her progress since then.  "Ariel is a prominent representative of how U.S. athletes can successfully combine studying with training. It's an inspiration for us that she brought textbooks to study while she plays in the Super League. Sooner or later ‘college athletes’ will also become mainstream in China, and table tennis should lead the way."

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Ariel, I’ve known you since you were a young girl.  I’m so happy for you to have gone on in the sport so successfully.  Can you tell us how you initially got involved in table tennis? 

My mom used to play table tennis when she was a little girl in China. After she moved to the U.S., she still frequently played against my dad in the garage. Whenever they played against each other, they made these killing sounds that made me have to peek. My loving parents would then yell at me to get out! 

I thought "Wow! This has to be the coolest game in the world!" So when they couldn't find a babysitter for me one day, they took me along to the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club. I got hooked right away. 

I played in my first U.S. Nationals right after I turned eight. Someone introduced me to you, the USA Table Tennis president. You addressed me by my first name the next day, and I thought, "The U.S. President knows my name. I must be special!" And then I won my first national Girls Under Ten title the next day.  

I’m glad I made you feel special.  As a matter of fact, there are two other fans of yours who also must make you feel special:  Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  How did you first meet them and what is the nature of your interaction with them?  

Uncle Warren chose four activities to celebrate his 75th birthday: bowling, playing bridge, learning to paint, and playing table tennis. I was just the lucky girl who was picked to play table tennis with him that day. 

Uncle Warren and Uncle Bill are two of the richest and most powerful people in the world, but they are also two of the most humble people. They are so down-to-earth that I don’t feel any different around them than with my other uncles or aunties. 

There was a lot of talk in Tokyo about your absence.  Do you think that you will continue to miss the WTTC’s until you finish college? 

When I first started studying at Princeton I thought to myself, "Hey! College isn’t as difficult as I thought it would be." I proceeded to compete in two international tournaments. But when I came back from the World Junior Championships in December, I realized that all my classmates were way ahead of me.

I had what I might call a “nervous breakdown” before final exams (luckily, I somehow managed to get A’s and B’s).  Afterwards we had a family meeting and decided I would no longer compete internationally during the school year.

But the World Championships is a special tournament to anybody, so I have not ruled out playing next year. 

In response to the article above, USATT Chair Mike Babuin commented, “Interesting article indeed! This is the mindset that USATT actually needs to change -- just like it’s true that a person can’t be in two places at once, neither can they have two major priorities at once and go to the top in either of them.   One has to pick and choose.  I think USATT needs a “college deferral program,” perhaps launched through a series of scholarships that defers entrance into major universities for at least four years to allow young athletes in their physical prime to devote their best years to full-time TT. The University will still be there in 4-years, but the young, agile, and peak body performance is a passing and quite elusive thing that comes and goes with the blink of an eye.”  

Caught in this difficult dilemma yourself, what do you see as the ideal solution, both hypothetically and personally? 

I really appreciate Mr. Babuin's concern for student table tennis players. Some colleges do allow "Deferred Admission" or for students to take a gap year.

Personally I'd love to see table tennis become an NCAA sport. It's so unfortunate that table tennis kids and their families spend so much time, effort, and money on the sport, but it doesn't help that much with their college applications. Compared to some other NCAA sports, kids often can be recruited by the best colleges. I’ll try everything I can to make table tennis an NCAA sport. 

Many contributors to the Countdown series have expressed hope that USATT will be able to take on a more engaged role in the future.  This article mentioned the possibility of moving some Super League matches to the U.S.  Can you give a status update on that? 

I am very excited with all the opportunities between China and the U.S. I have been in China for almost two months now, and I can see they really want to work with USATT to promote this sport. Some wonderful proposals have been discussed, like moving Super League matches to the U.S., having U.S. players train with the China National second team, and having two more U.S. players to train during the next Super League season. It’s super exciting!! 

Nice pun, Ariel!  Being the first American TT player ever to participate in China’s Super League must be a thrilling experience.  Just wondering how many other non-Chinese players are competing in the Super League?  Also, what are the main takeaways that you can see as most applicable to trying in the U.S. (or other countries) from a marketing, event presentation, or league organization standpoint? 

I still can't believe I am playing professionally now! It truly is a thrilling and humbling experience; all my teammates are much better than I am. 

To my understanding, there are three male foreign players this season: Timo Boll and Dimitrij Ovtcharov from Germany, and Joo Se-hyuk from South Korea. There are also three female foreign players:  Cheng I-ching from Chinese Taipei, Ri Myong-sun from North Korea, and me from USA. 

I feel that the biggest difference between table tennis in China and the U.S. is the fan base. There are many Chinese fans who are willing to travel and spend money to watch a match. Most Americans are still trying to understand this sport, and it doesn't make sense for them to watch it instead of playing it themselves. 

I believe the best way to promote table tennis in the U.S. is through education at the elementary/middle school level.  

What have been your observations about how the ITTF has evolved and progressed during your playing years? 

Thank you very much, ITTF, for the focus on Junior Development! I didn't get a chance to be part of the Hopes Team, but I was so honored to be part of the first-ever Youth Olympic Games. And now there are ITTF Junior Circuits, Cadet Challenges, World Junior Championships, and a lot more. All of these events are so crucial and special for a developing junior player. 

Besides giving credit to ITTF President Adham Sharara, all of us junior players also owe a big thank you to Mr. Mikael Andersson (check out his Eleven Points at http://elevenpoints.wordpress.com). 

You are quoted in the article as saying, “I have sacrificed many things, like my childhood, for table tennis.”  That reminds me of a question I asked earlier in the Countdown: with so much focus on developing players starting at Hopes, under 12, and seeing so many players develop at a much younger age, is this a good thing?  Why or why not? 

I have sacrificed many things in my childhood for table tennis, but it was worth it. Table tennis has opened so many doors for me – I got to see the world and go to different countries, experience different cultures, and meet so many interesting people. But most importantly, table tennis has taught me lifelong lessons. Without table tennis, I would have never learned to persevere and push through really difficult times when I just felt like resting. 

I would have never learned to deal with pressure, to cope with losing, and to bounce back on my feet after everything. I realize just how lucky I am to play table tennis and learn the lessons I did, and for that my outlook on life is positive and thankful. These are all things that I couldn’t have without table tennis. So yes, I did sacrifice many things for table tennis, but if I had to do it all over again, I would. A million times. 

If I have made any achievements in table tennis, it's not because of me, but all the people that have helped me. It's not possible to name every individual, so I'll just thank the organizations they represent: USATT, ITTF, China Super League/Jinhua Bank, and my sponsor Killerspin. I am especially thankful to all the coaches, uncles, aunties, and my parents who have inspired and guided me through all these years. 

The Countdown series is in honor of Adham Sharara’s 15 years of service as ITTF president. Could you share your views about his contributions? 

One thing I really admire about Mr. Sharara is the "Glue Ban." This gutsy policy has helped players’ health around the world. Without this rule, I am sure I would have eventually started using speed glue, and not only would it have hurt my health, but it also would have wasted a lot of valuable training time. I think this policy made the entire sport of table tennis healthier and more welcoming to new players. 

Thank you, Ariel. I take a lot of joy in watching, hearing about, and writing about your successes.  I wish you all the best life has to offer!   

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