From 2/27-3/1 in Santa Monica College, USA’s elite table tennis players vied for the remaining four spots on the US Olympic team. Lily Zhang and Kanak Jha already respectively qualified for Women’s and Men’s Singles and Teams events, based upon their world ranking. There were two positions left open per gender, and only one more male and female player would play in both events while the remaining athletes would participate only in the team event.
After four days of hard-fought battles, there emerged victorious on the women’s side lefty modern penholder Liu Juan, who swept the competition, and will join Zhang in the Singles and Teams event, along with right-handed traditional penholder Huijing Wang.
On the Men’s end, Nikhil Kumar won the trials, clinching the Singles and Teams event spot, while Zhou Xin rounded out the team as the third member.
When asked about how they felt making it through the trials and onto the team, the response was obviously unanimously positive. Liu said, “I was super excited when I won the Olympics [trials]”, stating that her dreams had come to fruition.
“I found out I had qualified before my second to last match, because of how everybody else's results happened until then. I was quite happy when I found out at that time, but I continued to play on and really wanted to get that first spot so I could play singles.”
Successfully clinching the singles spot only made his reaction afterwards more overjoyed.
Wang remarked, “I am very proud to represent US in Olympic game. It is my honor and pleasure to become [team] member of US Women’s Olympic Table Tennis team.
Zhou’s response was to the point and touching, “Emotional. It is any athlete's dream.”
Preparing for the trials and subsequent Olympics can be quite the juggling act, balancing full-time jobs to make ends meet, family life, and studies to name a few responsibilities. These four additional members to the US Olympic team are no strangers to this test in time and stress management. They also have in common strong support systems that not only push them to meet their potential, but also to inspire them when they’re overwhelmed.
For Kumar, aged 17, he is still in high school and must carve out time from hitting the books to training countless hours on all aspects of his game. He credits his Coach Tao of the Spartans TTC with motivating him for the past 5 years, priming him for this Olympic goal.
As a mere amateur player myself, I had to ask Kumar if he was homeschooled or took a nontraditional schooling route to accommodate for practicing more. Needless to say, I was surprised when he told me he goes to a regular high school, and as he remarked, “I just take one extra free period in order to give myself more time to train”
With Liu, married with a child as well, there comes familial responsibilities, and she is grateful to her parents, as well as her husband who took half a year off to help her pursue her dreams while she trained and coached at the New York Indoor Sports Club.
Wang is also a coach but said she will have to lower the amount of lessons she gives so she can hone her own physical and technical training for Tokyo 2020.
And regarding Olympic dreams while still working fulltime as a coach, family life as husband as well as father to a newborn son, Men’s team member Zhou does not beat around the bush. “It’s not easy,” he observed. “I will just have to do my best to balance the family, job, and training. It's more mental than physical.” He did say, however, that he has received good support from his employer as well as from his family, so this consistent backing has seen him through adversity and now onto the Olympic stage.
These athletes have put every ounce of their being into the trials and they deserve the highest praise for their accomplishments. Congratulations to the newest additions to the 2020 US Women’s and Men’s Olympic Table Tennis team!