When Lily Zhang was 9 years old, her family ping-pong table served a dual purpose.
“Our dining table was our ping-pong table as well,” Zhang said. “We’d have a tablecloth over it and eat lunch or dinner, then clean up, take the tablecloth off and hit the ball around. Or I’d practice my serves there.”
|Lily Zhang plays a forehand at the London 2012 Olympic Games at ExCeL on July 28, 2012 in London.|
The setup made perfect sense. After all, the Zhangs got their own table so they wouldn’t have to play in the laundry room at Stanford University, where Lily’s father was a math professor.
“Every time we wanted to play we had to move all the furniture,” she said, “so it was just easier to do that.”
When the Zhangs moved last year the ping-pong table went into the garage and Lily’s mom replaced it with a real dining room table that doesn’t come with a net.
“Now that I practice every day in the club,” said Zhang, who is now 19 years old, “she said we don’t need it any more.”
However, the table did its job well. Zhang is the top-ranked female table tennis player in the United States according to the latest ITTF world rankings., at No. 100.
She is the only American to compete in the Olympic Games prior to a Youth Olympic Games. Two years after playing in London, Zhang won the 2014 Youth Olympic bronze medal in singles in Nanjing, China. No other Team USA athlete has won a medal in table tennis at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games.
Zhang also won the team gold and singles bronze at the Pan American Games in Toronto last year and captured the women’s singles crown at the 2015 North American Championships.
She is one of eight U.S. athletes competing in the North America Olympic Qualification Tournament April 8-10 in Markham, Ontario. As many as two U.S. men and one U.S. woman can qualify by name for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, joining Yue "Jennifer" Wu, who qualified for Rio by winning the 2015 Pan Am title.
Zhang won the second day of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Table Tennis in early February to earn the trip to Canada. The U.S. must defeat Canada for the right to send a team to Rio, since only one of them can go.
“They’re good, but I think we have a really huge chance,” Zhang said.
|Lily Zhang competes in the bronze medal match at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games at the Wutaishan Gymnasium on Aug. 20, 2014 in Nanjing, China.|
At the 2012 Games, Zhang was part of the U.S. team that lost in the first round to Japan. She also lost in the first round in women’s singles to a player from Croatia.
“I was only 16 at the time, so everything was very overwhelming,” said Zhang, who was the third-youngest member of Team USA in any sport. “And it was just absolutely incredible. I remember walking out in the Opening Ceremony and just seeing all the lights and people. It was just such a magical feeling.”
Upon leaving London, Zhang told herself, “I enjoyed my time here and I’m so grateful, but Rio is the time that I can really get far. This time around I’ll be a lot more prepared.”
To give it her best shot, Zhang took the year off from the University of California, Berkeley, where she is a sophomore majoring in psychology. Last fall, Zhang spent three months in Austria, where she competed in the professional European league – losing only one match – and played six days a week, five to seven hours a day.
Zhang, who writes “Let’s Go, Have Fun,” on her left forearm before most big matches, believes she is much stronger – especially mentally – than she was in London.
“I know how to handle tough situations a lot better and how to calm myself down,” said Zhang, who tells herself that it is 0-0 on every point, no matter the score.
She said traveling overseas and observing other professional athletes has been “such a humbling experience. I’ve learned so much from it and I hope that I can take what I learned from Europe to America and we can start a league here where our players can play professionally.”
Zhang laments that in China, which develops many of the top players in the world, the “foundation is just so different from the U.S.”
Chinese children start playing when they are 4 or 5 years old and then go to special training camps where they play seven to eight hours a day.
Zhang played at most two hours a day while balancing school and table tennis.
“It’s so professional over there,” said Zhang. “It’s just their life, whereas in the U.S., it’s not very well known. If we were able to create a special training camp or a special club where kids could go play professionally, I think we would catch up.”
|Lily Zhang reacts during the bronze medal match at the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games at the Wutaishan Gymnasium on Aug. 20, 2014 in Nanjing, China.|
Like many members of the U.S. table tennis team, Zhang has a Chinese heritage and speaks the language fluently. Her parents were born in Xi’an, home of the famous terra cotta warriors, and moved to the United States “for a better opportunity,” Zhang said. Her father, who earned his master’s degree at Purdue and his PhD at Stanford, is now a software engineer.
Zhang’s parents played ping pong just for fun, and started Lily when she was 7. While the Stanford washers went through their spin cycle, Zhang learned about spin and angles. She achieved her first goal – beating sister, Lisa, who is 10 years older – when she was 9 or 10.
When a friend introduced her to the local table tennis club, “I kind of fell in love with it at that moment,” said Zhang, who also did ballet and played soccer. “I have a true passion for the sport. The slightest change of spin or power placement or angle can drastically change the entire game, so you have so much to keep in mind.”
Play is quick, requiring constant focus, and players need stamina to survive matches lasting up to two hours.
“It’s a very demanding sport overall,” she said.
Zhang has used the same paddle for six years – long enough to rub a dent in the wood – and said her biggest strength is her backhand. “A lot of people consider it to be extremely fast and have a lot of trouble reacting to it,” she said.
Zhang went to her first U.S. nationals at age 10 just to experience it. “Somehow I made the U.S. national cadet team,” said Zhang, who was the youngest player on the 15-and-under squad. “That kind of sparked my motivation and my goals for Olympics.”
Before the 2012 Olympic Trials, Zhang pulled a muscle in her right shoulder and a doctor told her to take a break for at least a few months.
“Olympic Trials were in a month, so I said, ‘I can’t take a break. I need to play,’” she said. “I went to Trials, taped up my arm really well and just worked through the pain.”
|Lily Zhang poses for a portrait at the 2016 Team USA Media Summit on March 9, 2016 in Los Angeles.|
While Zhang didn’t find success in London, the experience paved the way for Nanjing two years later.
“Going into Youth Olympics, I knew what to expect and I think that definitely helped me a lot in winning a medal,” Zhang said. “Also, in the Olympics I was 16 years old and I was kind of star struck by everyone else. At Youth Olympics, everyone was around the same age, so it was really cool to be able to interact with all the other athletes.”
At the Team USA Media Summit last month in Los Angeles, athletes were asked how long they would survive in a zombie invasion using their skillsets.
A wrestler said table tennis athletes would be the first to go. “I don’t think so!” said Zhang, a huge fan of “The Walking Dead.”
“I think I would survive at least until Season 2. I have a pretty wicked backhand, so I could have a sword and whack zombies in the face.”
Pity the poor zombie who gets between Zhang and Rio.