PLEASANTVILLE, N.Y. — Some of the best table tennis athletes in the country were primed for a shot at winning the Grand Final of the North American Table Tennis Tour this past weekend, but it was 12-year-old Crystal Wang of Maryland who stole the spotlight on the tournament’s first day.
Of the 16-player field, Wang was the only female participant, though her coach joked she was probably too focused on competing to notice.
The accomplished preteen was invited to participate as a wild card in the Grand Final at the Westchester Table Tennis Club in Pleasantville, New York. Playing against tougher, older competition on the men’s side didn’t faze Wang. She used it as a chance to expand on an impressive 2014 campaign in which she dominated the women’s game and made a name for herself as one of USA Table Tennis’ rising stars.
“Crystal hits the ball hard, there’s no question,” said Sean O’ Neill, a 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympian who now serves as director of communications for USA Table Tennis, prior to the Grand Final. “It would not surprise me at all if she got a win under her belt.”
Wang was able to secure a victory, upsetting No. 9 seed Zirui Zhao 3-2 in the round-robin stage.
Advancing to the quarterfinals proved elusive for Wang, but she hung around for the rest of the matches to observe her peers. Eugene Wang of Canada won the tournament, defeating Bob Chen of California 4-3 in the final round.
“I try to learn from (the guys) and help improve my skills,” Wang said.
Wang was born in Arizona but shortly after moved to China to live with her grandparents. It was in China where she was introduced to table tennis, and when she moved back to the U.S. at age 5 her affection for the sport followed.
Training out of the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, Wang heads to the center after school Monday through Friday and spends even more time refining her game on the weekends.
Larry Hodges, USA Table Tennis Hall of Famer and traveling coach for Wang, said she doesn’t take days off.
“Most people would think it’s crazy,” Hodges said. “But for her it’s all business.”
“Basically I just go to school and then I go to the ping-pong club and I do homework and I go home,” Wang said of her daily routine.
The hours of hard work are paying off. She’s the youngest person to ever make the U.S. women’s team. At the age of 11 she became the youngest person to ever win Under-21 women’s singles gold at the U.S national championships.
She’s running out of room on her table tennis résumé after taking home a women’s singles silver medal, women’s 21-and-under-under gold medal and women’s doubles bronze medal at the 2014 U.S. National Championships.
So what about her game has her consistently beating the women and giving the men trouble?
“Her forehand I’d consider efficient,” Hodges said. “Her backhand is vicious.”
Hodges said Wang’s mental toughness and composure set her apart from other competitors.
“She doesn’t get nervous,” he added. “She’s completely unemotional out there. I can’t tell what’s going through her head.”
Wang is looking forward to bringing her workwoman attitude and “vicious” backhand shot to the qualifying tournament for this summer’s Pan American Games in Toronto and the looming Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
“She has a very good chance to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2016,” Hodges said.
Wang said there’s a little bit of pressure when she hears the hype, but she hopes to use it as motivation to make her Olympic dream come true.
“It would be pretty exciting,” she said of competing in Rio 2016. “I would get to see a lot of top players from all different kinds of sports. It would be really cool to have that experience.”