by Kabir Nagpal
Hend Zaza is only 11 years old. Undoubtedly she will be the youngest athlete competing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, younger than 12 year old British skateboarder Sky Brown.
According to The Guardian she will be the fifth youngest athlete ever to compete at an Olympic Games, with the International Olympic Committee stating the youngest athlete to ever win a medal at the Olympics as gymnast Dimitrios Loundras, who was 10 years old when he competed for Greece in the gymnastics team in 1896. He won bronze in the parallel bars.
Good news for Syria and good news for table tennis; everywhere she is hitting the headlines:
- Business Insider: An 11-year-old Syrian table tennis player beat a woman 30 years older than her to qualify for the Olympics
- The Guardian Weekly: Hend Zaza, 11-year-old Syrian table tennis player, qualifies for Olympics
- CBS News Syrian table tennis star Hend Zaza qualifies for 2020 Olympics at just 11 years old
- USA Today: Hend Zaza, 11, will represent Syria at 2020 Tokyo Olympics, qualifies in table tennis
- NBC Sports: 11-year-old table tennis player qualifies for Olympics
- The Washington Post: She’s 11 years old and has qualified for the Olympics. Meet Hend Zaza, Syria’s table tennis whiz.
A young star in the clouds
Born in 2009 in Hama, Syria, Zaza first started playing table tennis in 2014 under the guidance of coach Adham Aljamaan. Her home city was heavily affected by terrorism and war; table tennis offered respite from daily hardships for Zaza and her brothers.
As a seven year old, Zaza joined her brother when he attended the West Asia Hopes Week and Challenge in Qatar in 2016. Zaza was allowed to practise with the older players, she started showcasing her potential at an early age to pull focus from every other table. Impressed, the coaches decided to send her to the World Hopes Week and Challenge as a participant.
ITTF activities provided a chance to travel and compete in the sport they loved; this love was evident in Zaza from the first day she trained at the World Hopes Week and Challenge. Eva Jeler, the ITTF expert on duty, recalls today:
“I have very rarely seen a player at this age play with such joy and train with such intensity as Zaza. She never walked to pick up the ball – she ran. While of course her technique needed and still needs improvement, her determination, resilience and will to play and win are (almost) a guarantee for future success.” – Eva Jeler
Today at home in Hama, Zaza practices six days a week, for three hours a day. Conditions are far from perfect in a hall with four relatively old tables, a concrete floor and frequent power outages that make training dependent on sunlight. Guided by her coach Aljamaan, she is now playing for Al-Muhafaza Table Tennis Club in Damascus, she became the first Syrian player to win national titles in all four categories in which she was eligible: hopes, cadets, juniors and senior.
From Syria, she has travelled to participate in several ITTF Regional and Continental Hopes Weeks, from the first visit in Qatar to participation and victory in the West Asia Hopes Challenge in Saudi Arabia in January this year, which meant qualification to the Asia Hopes Week and Challenge later in 2020.
At 11 years old, Zaza is still amongst the younger World Hopes athletes. A regular at the event since her first time, she may have to find it in herself to miss this year’s qualification to the World Hopes Week and Challenge, as another event might take precedence for Zaza – the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
In the final of the West Asia Olympic Qualification Tournament in Jordan, Zaza defeated Mariana Sahakian of Lebanon, 31 years her senior. It means Zaza will become the youngest Olympian at this year’s Olympic Games. Bassam Khalil, the president of the Syrian Table Tennis Federation, was ecstatic to say the least:
“This qualification tournament was really difficult for us, but we are really proud to be at the Olympic Games for the second time ever; this time, however, is completely different as we achieved it through the qualification procedures. I humbly want to tell you that this qualification gives every single player in the country the knowledge that qualification to the Olympic Games is a true possibility and we have the potential to do it again. The conflict in Syria in previous years prevented us from participating in many events, but we tried our best to take part and keep table tennis in our country as active as we can.” – Bassam Khalil
Syria’s leading ray of hope
Zaza not only defied the odds with her women’s singles title win in Amman, but also fate. She becomes the first Syrian table tennis player to qualify for the Olympic Games – ever.
The efforts of the Syrian Table Tennis Federation are clearly paying dividends. Tokyo 2020 will be the next big milestone for Hend Zaza and Syrian table tennis. Her Olympic dream will begin on Saturday 25th July in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Given her first words after her qualification, one can be sure this is the start of long, successfull career, but also one fuelled by humility and maturity way beyond her age:
“It’s a gift to my country Syria, my parents and all my friends” – Hend Zaza