More than a dozen U.S. athletes have already earned their nomination to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games, a head start that frees them to cast their focus 10 months hence. Providing, of course, they’ve found a way to sleep on the consummation of a quest, overcoming the odds and the elation of it all.
Overcoming the odds? Seems like a good place to start with Yue Wu.
You can call her “Jennifer,” her Americanized name, which became a bit more familiar when she steamed through the women’s singles field in table tennis at the Pan American Games in Toronto this past summer to earn her way to Rio. As long shots go, she was, well, the longest.
After all, she was seeded last in the bracket.
“So it’s a big surprise,” Team USA coach Teodor “Doru” Gheorghe allowed. “Seeding doesn’t matter all that much — it’s based on world rankings, and she hadn’t played in an international event in four months, so she didn’t have one. But even with a world ranking, she probably would have been seeded fifth or sixth. She was a true underdog — who just played better and better each day.”
But it goes beyond a seed line.
Wu, 25, has been a U.S. citizen for less than a year, finessing the usual civic and cultural hurdles while establishing her competitive bona fides and coaching beginners as a means to support herself. Even now, she pays her way back to her native Beijing for long stretches of training vital to her development, and struggles to get to events that test her against elite international players.
“I need more experience,” she said in an email interview, “and training with competition.”
But what she found here was opportunity.
“I decided to come to the U.S. because I wanted to see the world,” she explained, “and have the opportunity to play for (the national team).”
She had played on a team in Beijing growing up, taking up the sport at age 8 after her mother was advised by a friend that playing table tennis might improve her daughter’s eyesight. When Wu arrived in the United States in 2008, she settled in New York and coached at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club. She knew not even “one word of English,” she recalled — someone else even picked the name “Jennifer,” which she kept because “after a while, more and more people just called me ‘Jennifer.’” She had other discoveries to make, too.
“In the U.S., cheese is everywhere,” she said. “I love the food with cheese, like pizza and pasta. So I was too heavy — adding 15 pounds.”
And there were other stressful pressures.
“When I came to the U.S., I was not sure I could get a green card to stay,” Wu said. “So I had to try very hard to beat many elite male players in U.S. tournaments before submitting my applications. It was very difficult and challenging.”
But memorable. In one match at the North American Teams Championships in Baltimore not long after her move, she defeated He Zhiwen — a top-50 men’s player in the world.
By 2010, she was finding her way to podiums in a few ITTF events, but a difficulty in reaching those tournaments has left her résumé a little thin and slowed her development somewhat.
“It’s connected with confidence and mental strength,” Gheorghe said. “You can train hours and hours, but the competition gives you a different confidence. You need the person across from you, messing with your mind, challenging you on every point. You just can’t get that in practice.”
And so the regular trips back to Beijing, where she can practice more than the two-hours, thrice-a-week schedule that facility and financial limitations impose on her in the states. She’ll stay in China for up to a month and a half before important tournaments, as she did in advance of the Pan Ams, sparring against more credentialed players.
In Toronto, Wu blitzed through her first six matches to the final, losing only three games. In the gold-medal match, she went up two games to none on Brazil’s Lin Gui, then lost three in a row before knotting the match with an 11-9 win in game six and taking the tiebreaker 11-7.
“She is just a more mature player now,” Gheorghe said. “She plays with consistency and good mental strength. You need a clear mind when times are rough. If you start being afraid, you lose.”
Wu will head to Europe to play in two ITTF events this fall – the Polish Open in Warsaw and the Swedish Open in Stockholm. In December, armed with her new citizenship, she’ll play in her first U.S. championships in Las Vegas.
But she’ll have a hard time forgetting the thrill of nailing down her Olympic berth in Toronto.
“After I won the last point,” she said, “I felt finally all my dreams came true, and the effort was truly worth it.”