NANJING, China -- Lily Zhang does not disappoint. Touted as one of Team USA’s brightest stars heading into the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, the 2012 Olympian successfully captured the bronze medal in women’s singles table tennis Wednesday morning.
Zhang had already been receiving attention as the only American to compete at an Olympic Games prior to the Youth Olympic Games, and now she has made history again as the first American to win a table tennis medal at either the Olympic Games or the Youth Olympic Games.
“It feels amazing,” Zhang said of her medal-winning performance. “It feels like a dream, honestly. I just can’t put words to describe it because it feels like I’m floating.”
Her dream come true didn’t come easy. Her medal hopes wavered throughout the match. First her opponent, Miyu Kato of Japan, was up a game (12-10), then Zhang bounced back to win the second game, 11-9. The two continued to tie each other up and prevent their opponent from taking game point. Zhang continued her winning ways, closing out the third game 11-9. In the fourth game, Zhang’s strategy began to fall apart.
“In the fourth game after she (Kato) took a time out I won two more points, and then at 9-5 I started thinking too far ahead,” Zhang said. “I was thinking if I could win this game I could lead 3-1 and that’s a really big advantage for me, so I started rushing too much and not really thinking about my strategy.
“During my time out my coach just told me to breathe again because I think she saw I was getting too rushed and agitated, so she told me to breathe and think about the strategy.”
Zhang remembered to remain calm, cool and collected and came back to win the fifth game, 11-9, as well as the sixth, 11-8, to end the match at 4-2 and secure the bronze, as well as a place in U.S. table tennis history.
“Honestly I think the major reason that I won was the fact that I was able to keep myself strong and my mentality was 0-0,” she explained. “I try not to think about if I was down or if I was up. If I was up and thought about that too much I started rushing and forgot about the strategy so I kept repeating 0-0 to myself. I think I even mouthed it a few times.”
The 18-year-old knew how to channel the proper mentality thanks to a few years of international experience under her belt, including the London Games in 2012. Despite having already competed on the Olympic stage, there was no doubt in Zhang’s mind she would want to compete at the Youth Games as well.
“It’s just an amazing honor to be here,” Zhang said. “Both events are huge and it’s just really humbling to wear the U.S. flag and go out there and represent my country. Obviously I would love to be here.”
Zhang said she is loving every part of the Nanjing Games, from the volunteers to the athlete village, as well as the fact that it’s in China, the birthplace of both her parents, who were in the crowd Wednesday to watch her win bronze. Zhang is one of three athletes on the U.S. Youth Olympic Team who speak Chinese and says she has been putting it to good use in Nanjing. Zhang’s Games experience will continue with the mixed international team competition, after which Zhang will begin her freshman year at University of California, Berkeley, which she says is ranked among the top two college table tennis programs in the nation.
“I’m really excited to go to Berkeley,” she said. “It’s an incredible school. I love the environment there.”
After flying home with her historic medal and becoming a college athlete, the next item on this Olympic enthusiast’s radar is working towards more Olympic hardware at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.