Lin Gaoyuan and Lily Zhang compete during the mixed doubles semifinals at the 2021 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships on Nov. 28, 2021 in Houston.
Lily Zhang was familiar with “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” the friendly interactions between American and Chinese table tennis players in the early 1970s. She just didn’t know she’d be part of the 50th Anniversary celebration until the day before the 2021 World Championships began in Houston.
“My coach called me up, ‘Lily, do you want to play mixed doubles with the Chinese team?’” Zhang recalled. “I genuinely thought she was joking. I said, ‘Yeah, sure, of course,’ and then I realized she was being dead serious, and it was actually happening.”
Zhang teamed up with Lin Gaoyuan of China to capture the bronze medal and add another successful chapter to the sporting history between the countries.
“It was the coolest feeling, but I was also very nervous,” said Zhang, a three-time Olympian for Team USA from Fremont, California, “because China is one of the best countries at table tennis. I really wanted to do well not only for a good result, but to showcase to the rest of the world that our two countries can work together, and sport is something that can really bring us together and transcend all boundaries.”
While the medal was one of 11 won by China in the tournament, it was the first medal for Team USA at the world championships in 62 years. (Technically, each country received credit for half of a medal.)
“I genuinely never in my wildest dreams expected that I could win a medal,” said Zhang, who lost in the third round in women’s singles and in the first round in women’s doubles, “but given this opportunity to work together with China, it was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’m so glad to be a part of it, because really it’s crazy to be able to do this.”
In the other “Ping Pong Diplomacy” pairing, Kanak Jha of Team USA, who reached the quarterfinals in men’s singles, was paired with Wang Manyu of China, the women’s singles gold medalist. They were eliminated in the third round.
Zhang’s parents were born in China and because she speaks fluent Chinese, she had no problem communicating with her new partner. Zhang, 25, and Lin, 26, have known each other since they both played in the world junior championships, but Zhang said, “It was just saying ‘hi’ in passing.’”