With the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games just over six months away, the race is on to qualify for a spot on Team USA.
This week, the best table tennis players from across the nation will converge in Greensboro, North Carolina, for the first step in the qualification process — the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Table Tennis.
Here’s what you need to know about what will be going on this week in Greensboro:
In a change from years past, USA Table Tennis has elected to use three one-day tournaments to determine its representatives for the North America Olympic Qualification Tournament in April in Markham, Ontario.
If three different people win each tournament, they will be the representatives. However, if someone wins multiple tournaments, the additional participant(s) will be determined based upon the results of all three days, with precedence given to those who reach the final of at least one tournament. A playoff match could be used to break a tie if necessary.
There are 16 women and 63 men entered in the competition. The action starts at 9 a.m. on Thursday and at 10 a.m. both Friday and Saturday and continues through the semifinals. The finals will start at 7 p.m. on all three days.
Three Men To Watch
Timothy Wang is the highest-ranked American player in the world at No. 267 in the latest ITTF ratings, but he comes into the tournament seeded eighth. The 24-year-old was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in London, falling in his first match of the tournament. Wang lost in the round of the 16 at the 2015 Pan American Games, the highest-placed U.S. finisher at the event. However, he struggled at the U.S. championships and national team trials in December, failing to advance past the round of 16 in either tournament.
Kanak Jha is seeded third for this event after qualifying for his third consecutive U.S. world team by winning at the national team trials in December. The 15-year-old also qualified for the Pan American Games last summer, where he lost in the round of 32. Jha is ranked at No. 18 in the world at the U18 level and 298 overall.
Bill Guilfoil will be the oldest competitor in this week’s event at the ripe old age of 93. The Kansas native is seeded as 62nd out of 63 participants and is looking to become the oldest Olympian ever. He attempted to qualify in 2012 but lost in the first round of qualification.
Three Women To Watch
Lily Zhang returns for a shot at her second consecutive Olympic Games. The 19-year-old lost her first-round match in London but came back to win bronze medals at both the 2014 Youth Olympic Games and the 2015 Pan American Games. With her Youth Olympic medal, Zhang is the only U.S. table tennis player to medal at either the Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. A two-time national champion, Zhang won the second qualifying tournament at the U.S. national team trials.
Wang Chen came out of retirement last August and proved to the world she can still compete at the international level. The 42-year-old, who was a quarterfinalist at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, was a semifinalist at the U.S. championships and is seeded first in the tournament based on points she accrued through 2008 — the U.S. ranking system never resets its points. She dispatched of Zhang in six games to qualify for the national team in the first tournament and has only improved as she has gotten into better shape.
Eleven-year-old Rachel Sung will be the youngest competitor in North Carolina and is seeded 11th out of 16 players. Sung was a semifinalist in the U.S. U21 championships and took fourth-seeded Angela Guan to a full seven games in their first round match at nationals.
In addition to Chen, Wang and Zhang, two other Olympians will be competing this week in Greensboro. Mark Hazinski and Ilija Lupulesku finished 17th in doubles at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, and both are back seeking another Olympic berth. Before Athens, Lupulesku had competed in four Olympic Games — and won a silver medal in doubles — for Yugoslavia, as an independent and then for Serbia and Montenegro. He’s rated No. 1 entering the week. Hazinski is seeded sixth after finishing second at the U.S. championships in December.
Missing From Action
Jimmy Butler, the 44-year-old who made headlines in 2014 by winning the national championship 21 years after his last title, will not compete this week after pulling out of the 2015 Pan American Games with a strained left Achilles. Butler, who represented the United States at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, suffers from a debilitating muscle condition and retired originally in 1998 before starting his comeback two years ago.
Also not participating in this week’s trials are two members of the 2012 Olympic team, Ariel Hsing and Erica Wu. Both retired after the London Games and are now enrolled at Princeton. Hsing lost in the round of 32 and Wu only participated in the team event.
What Happens Next
Qualifying for Rio is a long process that is comprised of the U.S. trials in Greensboro and the continental trials in April. The three winners of this week’s events will represent the United States in Markham, along with the 2015 national champions, Yijun Feng and Jiaqi Zheng.
The ITTF has allotted North America three spots in the Olympic singles competition per gender. Those spots will go to the three highest finishers in Markham, with a maximum of two entries per country.
However, Team USA has already had one player qualify for Rio, Yue “Jennifer” Wu, who won the gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games. That means only two women will qualify for Rio from the Markham event, and only one of them can be American.
If the U.S. women qualify as a team for Olympic Games, the second-highest finisher from the North American trials will be added to the squad and only participate in the team event.