By Dean McArdle
Palo Alto Online Sports
Most newly turned 16-year-olds can't wait to get their driver's license and start cruising around town. Palo Alto High junior Lily Zhang, however, has bigger things on her mind, like the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.
Zhang qualified in January to represent the United States in table tennis. She defeated Canada's Anqui Luo in the Olympic Trials final to clinch a team win for the USA and fulfill her dream of reaching the London Games.
"I can't even describe it," Zhang said in a recent interview. "The feeling is just so exciting, because it has been my dream ever since I was a little girl."
Joining Zhang on the U.S. Olympic table tennis team is a pair of fellow California teens, Ariel Hsing of San Jose and Erica Wu of Arcadia. The three-teen team will be a heavy underdog in London, but Zhang embraces the role.
"I think that takes a lot of pressure of us," Zhang said. "We go out there thinking we are the underdogs, and we can just play our game."
Although only a few months into her 16th year, Zhang has been serving and volleying for over a decade. She began playing table tennis at seven-years-old, and quickly developed into one the young phenoms of the game.
When Zhang made the U.S. Under-15 cadet team at the precocious age of 10, she realized that table tennis could contain a serious future for her.
She began training at the India Community Center in Milpitas under the tutelage of a myriad of coaches, including former Italian National Team coach Massimo Constantini.
Honing her skills over the years, Zhang has blossomed into one of the United States' best players in any age category. The International Table Tennis Association currently ranks her No. 148 in the world.
Since qualifying for the Olympics, Zhang has pumped up her practice and competition schedule. She recently defeated teammate and training partner Hsing at the U.S. Table Tennis Open to claim the Women's Under-21 national title.
In London, however, the competition won't be limited to under-21, and Zhang will be up against the best the world of table tennis has to offer, and that means Team China. The daughter of a Chinese immigrant, Zhang knows that in table tennis China has no equal.
"China has definitely been dominating table tennis for a while now," Zhang said. "In China it (table tennis) is like the football of the U.S., it is huge and they have so many schools and training systems."
In her own school, Zhang has experienced a wealth of support from classmates and friends.
After qualifying, the story ran in the school's Campanile newspaper, prompting an outpouring of congratulations.
Zhang has not allowed the praise to slow her work ethic though, and trains every daty after school for two to three hours. While she is quick to express her love for the sport that has taken her around the world, managing high school and world-class athletics can be a tricky balancing act.
"It's getting harder and harder with school," Zhang said. "School is getting harder as I go along with homework and more tests, and having to study for SATs now."
Since the end of the school year, Zhang has expanded her practice schedule and now trains more than five hours a day. As the Summer Games approached, she began to work not only on her physical skills, but also on the mental side of table tennis, as well.
"We are working a lot on our mental game. A lot of people don't know, but there is so much mental game involved in table tennis," Zhang said. "You have to know your strategy and you have to think a few balls ahead of your opponent so you know where to go and where the ball is coming and how to place it."
While the Opening Ceremonies take place Friday, Zhang reported to Manchester, England on July 19 to continue her training with the national team coaches. There her training is focused on strategy and game planning for her upcoming opponents.
Her rapid rise to the upper echelon of her sport has forced Zhang into competition against opponents much older than her, some of whom are more than twice her age and have been competing longer than she has been alive. Her older competitors may have an advantage dealing with the nerves that come with the world stage.
"I'm sure when we get there and are about to play all of us will feel some butterflies in our stomach," Zhang said, explaining that her strategy is just to stay calm and limit her emotions.
Despite the hard training and the nerves, Lily Zhang still relishing the experience, and maintains a good deal of perspective.
"It still feels cool to wake up every day and know that you are going to be in the Olympics," Zhang said. "I don't really care if I win or lose, I just want to play my best."