Nationally ranked ping pong star bound for Paly
Except for the constant heartbeat-like rhythm of the bouncing ping pong ball, absolute silence fills the room as the players concentrate.At 3:30 p.m., as she enters the dance studio at David M. Starr Jordan Middle School, Lily Zhang wears a pair of blue shorts, a jersey and thin-heeled weightless shoes. Her coach greets her and they immediately begin practicing table tennis.
A group of volleyball players open the side door and cheer, “Lily, you are the best ping pong player in the whole world.”
She smiles but keeps her eye on the ball at all times. Suddenly the ball drops, she stomps her foot and she and her coach begin another game of ping pong.
During school, Zhang appears to be a regular 13 year old at Jordan; she works hard in class, loves to read good
books and always enjoys spending time with her friends.
However, after school, Zhang reveals a whole different side of herthat of a semi-professional ping pong player.
With about 20 hours of practice seven days a week, it is no wonder that Zhang is ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in table tennis for junior girls (under 18) and No. 25 internationally for cadets (under 15).
“I really enjoy playing ping pong but I don’t like that it gets competitive, especially during finals,” Zhang said. “I also put a lot of pressure on myself to get to the highest level possible.”
Zhang started playing the commonly overlooked sport of table tennis with her parents when she was just seven years old. Although at first she struggled with the sport, she soon improved drastically to become one of the best players in the nation.
Working around school, she now practices seven days a week, three hours a day on weekdays and four to six hours on weekends.
Her biggest accomplishment in table tennis took place in 2008.
Zhang traveled to Canada to play table tennis in the North American Championships and won first place for the15 year-old division.
For Zhang, one of the most thrilling parts of playing as a world ranked table tennis player is that has the opportunity to play in tournaments around the world.
In 2009, she was one of the youngest players to be selected to join Team USA to compete in the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan.
“It’s really cool to play in places like Australia because I can meet new people,” Zhang said. “Their levels are all very different. Some are really good and some are not so good.”
During the second half of the year, Zhang has to leave school at least once a month for a week or two to go and play against other talented players around the world.
Recently, Zhang traveled to Japan, Colombia and Las Vegas to compete in international table tennis tournaments.
For Zhang, the tournaments were an opportunity to make friends from different countries and compete against the best.
“I now have friends from Slovakia and China and I stay in touch with them through e-mail and Facebook,” Zhang said.
However, with all the hard work and training Zhang puts into table tennis, it can be difficult to manage table tennis and her school work.
“It’s been hard when I have to go to places but I have been keeping up and doing my best,” Zhang said.
Her parents and coach have considered home schooling her so that she can focus more on table tennis.
Yet, Zhang resisted the offer because she wants to stay with her friends and attend school.
“A lot of players have been home-schooled, like the No. 1 player, but I have a lot of friends at school and I don’t like that I wouldn’t be able to see them nor would I be able to go out,” Zhang said. “It’s more fun learning with more people.”
Therefore, she has to work twice as hard during the weeks when she is at school to make up missing homework assignments and tests.
Next year when she enrolls at Palo Alto High School, Zhang has decided to keep playing in tournaments. However, she wants to dedicate more of her time to school by practicing fewer hours during the week.
“When I am at Paly, I will have to focus more [on ping pong] and work harder to improve with less hours of practice,” Zhang said.
Through the years, Zhang has gained a lot of popularity in the ping pong community.
Now Zhang practices with even more energy and enthusiasm because she hopes to qualify for the 2012 Olympic ping pong games in London.
“Currently, I am fifth in the United States, [18 and above included],” Zhang said. “If I want to go to the Olympics I have to be fourth.”
To help her, she has two different coaches; one practices with her at Jordan after school in the dance studio and the other plays with her at home.
She is currently sponsored by Joola, a popular company that sells retail table tennis equipment. They give her free paddles, clothes and trips.
Her parents have also played an important role in encouraging her to keep on improving.
“My parents have been really great,” Zhang said. “At first I wasn’t really great but they paid for all my lessons and supported me the whole way through. I love to play ping pong but I probably would have quit by now if it hadn’t been for them helping me.”
Zhang hopes that she will have the opportunity to go to the Olympics in the future.
Courtesy ofThe Paly Voice