27 Feb 2018

Kai Zhang may look just like any other Binghamton University student but in reality he is a nationally ranked table tennis player.

Originally from Beijing, China, Kai moved to Pleasantville, New York, five years ago to gain more opportunities in table tennis and education. He has been playing table tennis for 14 years; his goal is to represent the United States at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

by Julianna Klein, Communications Assistant at Binghamton University

Will Shortz, the creator of New York Times crossword puzzles, became his guardian.

How did you meet Will Shortz?
We came here for a vacation, and Will had just opened his club for the first time, and he hosted a tournament there. During my vacation here, I went to his club to play in the tournament, and that’s where we met first but we didn’t know each other at the time. He came to Beijing for a world table tennis championship. Will loves to play table tennis, so he contacted a mutual friend who knows my parents, and then my parents took him to travel around and play table tennis. So that’s where we actually got to know each other. After that, he described a lot of opportunities in the United States and, after a year, I decided that I may want to come to the United States.

Why did you come to the United States?
I wanted to find more table tennis opportunities in the United States. It’s really complicated in China, there are politics involved in sports and you don’t have many chances to compete in national tournaments. At that moment, I felt like the only thing I knew was table tennis, so if I came to the United States, maybe I could learn something else and have a more rounded life. I played for 10 years in China, so it was really hard to make that decision to give up that dream, because my dream was to represent China and become a world champion. Now, my dream is to go to the Olympics and represent the United States.

What was it like to make the transition from China to the United States?
After I came to the United States for a year, I played a lot of tournaments the first year, and I used the awards I earned to apply for my green card. After I got my green card, the people around me influenced me a lot, so that made me realize that education is really important. I didn’t know any English at the time. I just wanted to learn English at first, and then I decided to go to a regular high school. It was difficult; I didn’t know the language at that time, and I had to balance table tennis and private lessons with going to school.

How do you balance playing ping pong with going to school?
That’s the hardest part. I think I got used to it a little bit because I moved here by myself and had to handle everything by myself, so I think I became more mature. It’s really hard to balance the time; you get really tired sometimes, but I really enjoy doing it.

What challenges do you face with table tennis being at college?
There’s no place to train here and you also don’t have much time if you go to college. I try to do more physical training: I try to go to the gym a lot, keep my body fit. Over the weekend, if I have tournaments, I have to travel around. I try to use the tournaments as practice right now. If the tournament is on Sunday, I try to get there Friday or Saturday so that I have a day to practice.

How has Binghamton impacted you?
Binghamton definitely influenced my career and academics. Here, I take more classes and I think I know what I want to do. I think I learn more in general, and make more friends and have more friends from all over the world. Here I can find more students with similar experiences as me. I feel more connected.

What do you like the most about table tennis?
Table tennis is a brain game, a puzzle. Sort of like a crossword puzzle. Because you have to find out a strategy, how to use what you know in the game; and also you have to watch your opponent’s strategy and find a way to beat that. For beginners, they would probably think that it’s just back and forth, but there is actually a lot involved: the spin, the placement on the table, etc. It can train your brain, your eyes, your co-ordination. It’s good for everyone of all ages, no matter what your skill level.

How has your training changed since you got to college?
When I was in China, I didn’t go to school, but I trained for eight hours a day. That’s all we do. I can’t train much when I go to college here. I joined the Table Tennis Club here at Binghamton and I’m sort of like a coach there. I go there and I try to help other people in the club, but I also play for school. I go there to talk to my friends and help them out. I enjoy coaching other people. I just try to help the students here and help the club.

Who are your greatest influences?
Of course, my parents. Without them I couldn’t come here. They supported me. After that, Will is one of the major influences in my life. He helped me a lot. He helped me to apply for my green card, he helped me to stay in the club, through coaching and playing, and he helped me in school with my English.”
I have to train to go to the 2020 Olympics, so if I want to do that I have to take one year off of college.

Why did you choose business?
I think because I’m a people person — I love to work with people and talk to people. I’m pretty open. I love to travel. I think business is my best fit.

Play at the 2016 Aurora Cup

General News Kai Zhang