by Simon Daish
Lily Zhang has made her name well known on the world stage over the past few years, impressing not just at national level but also appearing at World Championships and two Olympic Games. But how did Zhang’s table tennis story begin? Believe it or not in a laundry room.
Impressing at a Young Age
Bo Zhang, Lily Zhang’s father was formerly a professor in maths at Stanford University and for eight years the Zhang family were residents on the University campus and funnily enough the laundry room at the University also housed a Table Tennis table. Lily Zhang along with her parents would play Table Tennis while waiting for their clothes to dry, and Lily has nothing but happy memories about her days in the laundry room, “Those were the best times, it was like, ‘Yes! I get to play!’ I always wanted to go do laundry, it was something I looked forward to.”
Before long Lily Zhang started to attend a Table Tennis club and according to the 20-year-old herself, it was at that moment when she got really drawn in by the sport, “It was a fun hobby before that … but once I went to the club and I saw the professional players, I fell in love with the sport.”
Arguably one of the earliest moments of Zhang catching the world’s gaze was when she made the U.S National Team to compete at the World Championships aged just 12, and Zhang stated that despite the age difference between her and her teammates everything flowed smoothly at the tournament, “They took care of me and really walked me through the tournament. It was kind of a motherly role.”
Setback Leading to Break
Zhang continued to rise up the world rankings ladder and was a highly anticipated addition to the London 2012 Olympic Games lineup, but an early exit began to show the U.S player just how difficult it could be to compete in front of a big expectant crowd:
“In 2012, I was feeling ok before my match,” said Lily. “But when I walked out into the stadium and it was just filled with people screaming and cheering, I sort of froze up. I didn’t know how to handle myself during the actual match. It’s a little bit of a blur to me.”
Disappointment in London pushed Zhang to take some time away from Table Tennis and upon reflection she believes that the time off was to her benefit, “It was good for me to take a break and have a normal life, hang out with friends. I never really had that my entire life.” Zhang added, “I didn’t have time to do normal teenage things like go to concerts. I don’t regret (my childhood), but it was nice to have a break from the craziness.”
Tough Choice to Make
Since London 2012 Lily Zhang has returned to the sport and has made great strides on her play, but a difficult discussion lies ahead for the American: will she continue with her studies and play on a part-time basis or will she make Table Tennis a full-time part of her life?
“I think I would be satisfied for the most part (if I stayed in school), I’ve done a lot. But at the same time, there’s something in the back of my mind saying, ‘You could be better, you could be the best in the world.’ … It’s just two completely different worlds I’m in, and I love both so much. I wish I could have both, but I know eventually I’m going to have to choose one or the other” – Lily Zhang (USA).