Lily Zhang was so busy traveling from one table tennis tournament to another she almost missed the 2019 ITTF Women’s World Cup in Chengdu, China.
Zhang realized five days before the prestigious tournament started in late October that she didn’t have a visa to enter China. Even though her parents were born in China, Zhang, a native of northern California, needed clearance to get to the World Cup.
“I was scrambling last minute to try to get an express visa, but I was in Germany and they said that they don’t make express visas for U.S. passports,” Zhang said. “So for like a day or two I was actually really, really depressed and sad because I thought I wouldn’t be able to make it to the tournament.”
Zhang found a loophole, though. She learned while searching on the internet that she could stay in Chengdu for 144 hours without a visa.
As it turned out, the two-time Olympian didn’t need that much time to make a historic run at the World Cup — less than a year before the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The 23-year-old entered the tournament with modest expectations as a wild-card entry. However, she rallied to knock off former World Cup champion Miu Hirano of Japan in the round of 16.
Zhang went on to become the first American ever to reach the semifinals at the event, eventually losing in the bronze-medal match. In doing so, she jumped from 49th to 33rd in the world rankings and gained the confidence to believe she could become the first American, male or female, to medal in table tennis at the Olympic Games.
“It was the best tournament of my life, I have to say, and I think it’s just really encouraging and motivating to me that things like this are possible,” said Zhang, whose previous best finish at the World Cup was reaching the round of 16. “If I can reach the semifinals in a World Cup, then why not world championships or the Olympics ultimately?”
Zhang has focused her attention entirely on table tennis since graduating last year from the University of California, Berkeley, with a psychology degree. She moved to Germany to play in a professional table tennis league, and she has spent the past few weeks traveling to tournaments in Japan and Australia.
Zhang’s deep run at the World Cup came only a few months after she earned her fifth U.S. national championship. She followed it up by winning four gold medals, including in the women’s singles event, at the 2019 Pan American Championships.
Her 2019 also included two medals at the Pan American Games, as well as helping the U.S. qualifying a team spot for the Tokyo Games.
“It’s the passion, I think, that makes me good and makes me want to perform well and reach my goals,” Zhang said. “I guess it’s just really, really loving what I do.”
She is now nominated for two International Table Tennis Federation Star Awards—a first for a U.S. athlete—the Star Point Award and Breakthrough Star Award.
Zhang had just turned 16 when she made her Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games. She said she felt overwhelmed competing on such a large stage as a teenager.
Though still nervous, Zhang said she had a better idea of what to expect four years later. She reached the third round of the women’s singles draw at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Between those, she also competed in the Summer Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014, where she won a bronze medal and became the first American to earn a table tennis medal at an Olympic competition.
As accomplished as she was, Zhang didn’t receive an athletic scholarship to attend Cal. Table tennis is considered a club sport in college, but she still had plenty of good practice partners to face — even if her status as a two-time Olympian remained mostly unknown around campus.
“No, I don’t think many people knew,” Zhang said, laughing. “And I didn’t tell many people either unless they asked.”
Zhang’s father was a math professor at Stanford University, and she was introduced to table tennis while living with her family on campus. As a kid, she accompanied her parents whenever they went to wash clothes in a laundry room at Stanford. There was a table tennis table in the back of the laundry room.
“So while we were waiting for the laundry to be done, I would just hit with my parents for fun,” she said.
Zhang started taking the sport more seriously at age 8. A friend brought her to a local table tennis club in Palo Alto, California, and soon she signed up for private lessons.
“I don’t think the Olympics came into my mind until I was about maybe 10 or 11,” Zhang said. “We went to Las Vegas from the national championships, and I kind of just went with my family for, yeah, the tournament but also as a family vacation.
“Somehow by some chance, I’m not sure how, but I made the U.S. national cadet team, which was (for players) 15 years and younger. And I was like 10 or 11 at the time.”
So what would it mean for Zhang to become for the first American to medal in table tennis?
“Oh my gosh, it would be a dream come true. It would mean so, so much to me,” Zhang said. “It would mean the absolute world, and I think it would help improve table tennis in America and that’s something that I would really love to see one day.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.