In the late 1980s, when eventual two-time Olympian Lily Yip moved to the United States from China with her family, there were few top-level table tennis players for the elite 24-year-old to train with.
So Yip, who became a U.S. citizen in 1991 and made the U.S. Olympic Team in 1992 and 1996, made due with what she could to prepare to compete against the powerhouse players of her motherland.
Now as the national junior girls’ team coach for USA Table Tennis, the New Jersey-based Yip is putting her focus on growing the strength of Team USA by bringing more international coaches to the United States and taking her teams around the globe for training blocks against the best in the world.
“The past few years we have more and more coaches coming from Eastern Europe and China that have really been bringing up the level in the U.S.,” Yip said Tuesday in an interview from the U.S. National Championships, which are underway in Las Vegas.
“The top 16 kids in the country are playing with top pros from around the world,” she added. “The level is much higher.”
And it seems to be working. In August, 18-year-old Lily Zhang (coached by Yip) became the first American to medal at either an Olympic or Youth Olympic competition, when she captured bronze at the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games. That success was bolstered when, earlier this month, Zhang led the U.S. team to a team bronze medal at the World Junior Championships, which was the first World Junior Championships medal for a North American country.
“It feels amazing,” Zhang, a 2012 U.S. Olympian, said in August after her medal effort. “It feels like a dream, honestly. I just can’t put words to describe it because it feels like I’m floating.”
It’s not just the domestic training that the table tennis prodigies are benefitting from. Yip and Zhang joined Prachi Jha, 17, Crystal Wang, 12, and Angela Guan, 16, on a trip that included stops in Japan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong for training, a venture Yip said is of the utmost importance for their development.
“It’s been a miracle,” exclaimed Yip, giving a nod to special funding from USATT and the United States Olympic Committee. “These four (China, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong) are the best in the world. It’s incredible that we can train in those places. It’s so important for us to be able to train with these athletes.”
Zhang, Jha, Wang and Guan are all eyeing the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic team, which Yip believes will be its strongest ever. Ariel Hsing, a 2012 Olympian and the defending and three-time national champion, now 19, is still in the mix as well, though she’s sitting out nationals as she continues her studies at Princeton, where she is a sophomore.
“The recent results for Team USA have been the culmination of some very hard work and dedication thanks to the families and coaches both at the local and national levels,” explained the USATT’s Sean O’Neill, a five-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympian. “The U.S. girls’ team is as strong as any top European country in the sport, and really only China and Japan are clearly a level above.”
Zhang won the senior national title in 2012 and looks to reclaim her crown this week with Hsing absent. She’ll have Jha to contest with, who finished runner-up a year ago.
Jha trains in the San Francisco Bay Area with younger brother Kanak, who was a semi-finalist at nationals in 2013 in the men’s singles event. In October, he became the youngest athlete to compete at the ITTF Men’s World Cup at age 14. The world No. 423 won his opening game vs. Taiwan’s Chen Chien-An before going down in five games (4-1) to the world No. 22.
“My ultimate goal is to be in the top 100 in the world,” Kanak Jha told a local outlet earlier this year.
“He’s actually one of the most clutch, focused players that I know of on the table,” Prachi Jha said of her little brother. “That inspires me a lot when he’s playing.”
It’s Zhang, Hsing, the Jha family and a whole host of other up-and-coming table tennis stars who could inspire a nation come the Rio Games in 2016. Yip reported that youth participation is up around the country.
“More young kids are playing,” Yip explained. “It’s more popular. Winning a medal (in Rio) would be very difficult, but I think if we can keep up our hard work, we will have a better result than at the London Games.”
O’Neill confirmed it’s a day-in, day-out obsession.
“We continue to work closely with the USOC to grow the sport,” he said. “We think about these challenges daily. Growing the sport and making sure our best players and their families have what they need is the bottom line.”
It’s an approach that could produce medals down the road, and one that Lily Yip would have loved to be a part of almost 30 years ago.
Nick McCarvel is a freelance writer based in New York. He has covered all four of tennis' Grand Slams, as well as the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games for NBCOlympics.com. McCarvel is a freelance writer for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.