By Jaylon Thompson | July 18, 2015, 6:12 p.m. (ET)
Lily Zhang (L) and Erica Wu compete during a women's team table tennis match against Japan at the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on Aug. 3, 2012 in London.


Heading into the 2015 Pan American Games, both the men’s and women’s table tennis teams have an aura of confidence about them. It is an opportunity to build momentum in advance of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, and their expectation is to seize the moment.

“My personal goal is for the women’s team is to win gold,” women’s coach Doru Gheorghe said. “The Pan Am Games are a good test to see where we are at this point. It is to see what we need to do in the next year leading up to Rio.”

The 2015 Pan American Games serve as the beginning stage for Team USA. It is the first time that team members can qualify individually for the 2016 Olympics. Round robin singles competition decides who reaches the medal stand. The gold medalist of the event goes on to Brazil.

Team USA also will participate in team match play. However, team competition doesn’t directly influence Olympic qualification.

Team USA sends a trio of athletes from both the men’s and women’s national teams to Toronto. Jimmy Butler, a 2011 Hall of Fame inductee, and 2011 Pan American Games bronze medalist Lily Zhang headline the group.

It’s been a long road for Butler as he looks to return to the Olympics for the first time since 1996. He retired in his prime as a 27-year-old in 1998 due to chronic pain and injury issues. It got so bad that his muscles suffered from extreme tightness and at times he struggled to sit up or walk.

Many years passed as Butler focused on getting his body healthy. Table tennis was the least of his worries until he decided to make an historic return in 2012.

This year, the 2014 U.S. men’s singles champion is looking to bring his career full circle with a berth in the 2016 Olympics.

“I hope to fare well and show a level of improvement from my previous performances this year,” Butler said. “My biggest goal is to show progress for the year. I am a project in the making, and progress must be taken one step at a time.”

The two-time Olympian and four-time U.S. men’s singles champion will be joined by 2012 Olympian Timothy Wang and teenage sensation Kanak Jha. Butler said he hopes to use his experience to lead the team to victory.

“It is important for me to try and qualify for the Olympics by placing in the top three of North America,” Butler said.

Zhang, a 2012 Olympian, also is looking to build off recent success, as she won the 2014 U.S. women’s championship.

She was the first American to earn an Olympic or Youth Olympic medal in the sport, when she took bronze at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. Zhang is joined in Toronto by U.S. teammates Jiaqi Zheng and Yue Wu.

The women’s team is unique as it enters competition as one of the top-seeded teams. The team is relatively young but has a lot of experience. This has made them favorites to earn a spot in Rio.  While the team’s expectation is to win, the goal is to become better looking ahead to 2016.

“I don’t put any pressure on the team,” Gheorghe said. “Our goal is to prepare for Rio and have a great Pan American Games.”

The 2015 Pan American Games is an opportunity to build momentum for the country still searching for Olympic glory.

“The advice I give to my teammates is to stick with it and get better,” Butler said. “We all need to get better in America. With hard work, it is possible to make big jumps in table tennis.”

The table tennis competition takes place from July 19-25 at the Atos Markham Pan Am Centre.

Jaylon Thompson is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.