I saw Kai Zhang for the first time when I started playing in September 2012. Kai had come from NJ to compete in our club's monthly tournament. However, we didn't really become friends until he started training at our club in January 2013.
For those of you who don't already know, Kai immigrated to the US with the hopes of playing table tennis at the international level, especially in the Olympics and the World Championships. Trained at the famous Shichahai Sports School, Kai played on the Beijing Provincial Team for four years prior to coming to the US. After arriving here, Kai decided to pursue an education, something that he had missed out on since the age of 10.
Kai is a 17 year old sophomore at Pleasantville High School and lives with Will Shortz, the owner of Westchester Table Tennis Center. Kai has made excellent progress with learning English, schoolwork, and table tennis since his arrival. Kai has even started a table tennis club in his high school. When not in school or training, Kai coaches players of various levels. Kai is currently the top player in the North American Table Tennis Tour scheduled for early February 2015. He is definitely someone to be on the look out for!
I caught up with Kai to ask him a few questions. Enjoy!
Quick facts about Kai Zhang:
Highest rating 2708
#1 in the state of New York
#3 for Under 18 Boys in USA
#9 for Men in USA
Former member of Beijing Provincial Team (2008 - 2012)
Kai Zhang (#3 for U18 Boys in USA)
Photo credit: Henry Lee
With Kai Zhang
Photo credit: Henry Lee
1. Tell us how you got started with table tennis.
I started playing table tennis at the age of six. It was by accident. When I was in Kindergarten, a local table tennis coach visited my school to look for kids with good bodies conditioned to play table tennis. He picked me from the entire class.
2. How often do you train and for how long? Do you follow any fitness routine to help with table tennis?
I train three times a week for an hour and a half. Unfortunately, with school and coaching, I don't have more time. In also follow a fitness routine few times a week so I can keep my body in shape. I do weight lifting to retain power and running to build stamina.
3. Tell me about any recent achievements and honors.
I finished #3 for U21 Men at the 2014 US Open in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am also currently #1 player in the 2014 North American Table Tennis Tour.
4. How is table tennis training different in the US compared to China? Which style do you prefer and why?
American training is more flexible than in China. In China, even if you are injured or sick, the coaches don't allow you to take a break. There is a lot of pressure on athletes. Many athletes in China do not attend school. As a result, they can train more. I am not sure which one I prefer. If you want to be a world champion, it is better to train in China. But if you want to have a balanced life and want to be happy and free, then training in the US is better.
5. Is there one person who you can give most credit for helping your table tennis career?
The chief coach of Shichahai helped me a lot. I felt that I improved a lot when I was there.
6. What was the biggest challenge that you faced as a rising table tennis player, and how did you overcome that?
Around the age of 10, I used to get emotional during matches. If the opponent gave me trouble, sometimes I would give up or get angry. My coach helped me. He taught me some sports psychology and gave me some literature to read. He taught me to say something positive to myself when I got angry. He also taught me that when I was leading in the game, I should stay focused on my strategy and not on the result. I should just think about how I can play the next point well.
7. What are your goals with regards to table tennis?
I would like to represent the US in the Olympics.
8. Who is your favorite table tennis player? Why?
My favorite table tennis player is Zhang Jike because he is mentally tough and my playing style is similar to his.
Now on to some personal questions...
9. What do you like most about living in the US?
In general, I like how people have freedom. They can decide what they want to do. There are no restrictions. For me, living here allows me to play table tennis and study at the same time. Hopefully it will give me the opportunity to play international tournaments, especially the Olympics.
10. What is the hardest part of living in the US?
When I first came here, the hardest part was that I did not know the language. I could not communicate with people. Also, since I live on my own, I have had to learn to do many things for the first time, such as cooking, grocery shopping, etc. But I am happy about these experiences because I am more independent now.
11. What other sports do you enjoy watching or playing?
I like to play badminton, soccer, and snowboard. I also like to watch basketball and tennis.
12. What is your favorite food?
13. Do you like to play video games? If so, what is your favorite game?
I don't play video games any more. I don't have the time. But when I did play in China, I liked League of Legends.
14. What professional career would you like to pursue?
As you know, my dream is to represent the US in the Olympics so I will never give up on table tennis. If I were to pick another career, I think I will be interested in Business or Finance, but I am not sure.