GREENSBORO, N.C. – Two Olympians took another step Thursday to returning to the Olympic Games as part of Team USA.
2008 Olympic quarterfinalist Chen Wang and 2012 Olympic team member Timothy Wang won the first of three finals at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Table Tennis in North Carolina, booking a spot at the North America Olympic Qualification Tournament in April in Markham, Ontario, where they will try to punch their ticket to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Chen Wang defeated Ying Lu in five games and Timothy Wang bested Sharon Alguetti in six hard-fought games.
Both said their experience at the Olympics was a motivating factor in the back of their minds entering the tournament.
“It really makes me pumped up because I know what to expect and I really want to do well for the country,” Timothy Wang said. “I've been working so hard for the last four years (to get back to this point).”
“It's different than other competitions so people all get more nervous,” Chen Wang added. “It's a big competition every four years, so if you want to have your best performance you need to have the mental strength. My advantage is that I have the experience in how to play in the (Olympics).”
Thursday was the culmination of plenty of hard work for Chen, who retired after the 2008 Olympics only to return in August to competitive action. The 42-year-old mother of one said she is embracing this year as a second chance and is slowly returning to form.
In the finals, Chen dropped the first game, but made a small adjustment in her positioning to spur the comeback. She said Lu was playing a much slower pace than some of her previous opponents, and simply moving closer to the table helped her attack the ball a bit more.
“She didn't want to play speed with me,” Wang said. “It's a different timing because she plays more underspin and sidespin. In the first game, I couldn't figure out how to return her ball, and in the second game I just came closer to the table and used my backhand more to return it. I moved closer to the table to rally with her.”
After making the semifinals of the U.S. nationals in December in Las Vegas, Wang said she gained a lot of confidence that she could return to the elite level she was at in 2008, when she made it further than any other American in Olympic history. Her style of play has not changed much since her return to the sport. She still wants to try and force her opponents into longer rallies and overpower them.
However, she has struggled with the pace of play since her comeback began. She has slowly been speeding up her game to the pace of the younger generation, but said Thursday was a step in the right direction.
“I'm trying to speed up my game to reach my level I was at eight years ago,” Wang said. “I'm trying very hard to speed up my game, and (Thursday) I already felt like I was faster than I was in Las Vegas one month ago.”
Timothy Wang had his hands full with Alguetti, who pushed him during the entirety of the 62-minute match. Timothy won a 15-minute first game, 19-17, and continued to hit big shots in crucial moments to stave off the 14-year-old national team member.
The victory can be attributed in many ways to Timothy's move to Atlanta last month. He said he had been in a slump the past two years, but the work he did in Atlanta helped him bust out of it in a big way Thursday.
“My preparation was a lot better,” he said. “With the new club and new coaches, they've been all about helping develop my game and helping me out.”
One of the more notable changes was hiring a personal trainer – former NFL player Corey Bridges – to help him with his fitness. That came in handy Thursday as he battled cramps during the final three matches.
With two months to go until the North America Olympic Qualification Tournament in Ontario, Wang said he is not sure how he will prepare, either going to China or heading back to Atlanta to train for his shot at returning to the Olympic Games.
The 15 remaining women will return to action Friday around noon. The 15 other men who made the round of 16 will be joined by the winner of a morning qualifier and commence play around 1 p.m. The runner-up from the qualifier will be the 16th player in Saturday's third and final trial.