Palo Alto's Zhang looks to bring home a medal from Rio


If it wasn't for a certain laundry room at Stanford University, Lily Zhang, the highest-ranked women's table tennis player in the United States, might not be where she is today.

"My dad was a math professor at Stanford," said Zhang, ranked 94th in the world by ITTF and speaking at a fundraiser at SPiN, a ping-pong social club in San Francisco. "Every time we went to go do laundry, they had a table tennis table in the laundry room, and I'd just hit with my parents for fun; nothing serious at all. I didn't think anything would come from it."

A few things have come from it -- very big things. The 20-year-old Zhang, who went to Palo Alto High and is currently attending Cal, will compete in her second Olympics next month in Rio in both singles and the team event.

How she got onto the world stage was another unexpected development. When she was 10, Zhang played in the U.S. national championships in Las Vegas "just for fun," while her family planned a vacation around it.

"I somehow ended up making the U.S. national cadet team, which is 15 years or younger and I was the youngest person on the team at that time, so it was, 'Wow, I can actually do this,' " she said. "I can play this sport. From that moment on, it really became my dream to make the Olympics."

That dream didn't take long to reach. A slew of top finishes at competitions followed -- from a bronze in the Pan Am Games to being a finalist at the U.S. National Championships in 2011 -- and Zhang soon found herself headed to London on the Olympic team at age 16.

"It was an incredible experience," she said. "Going in and seeing all these incredible athletes, being able to compete on the biggest world sports event was just such an incredible honor."

But without being prompted, Zhang admitted the experience was a little overwhelming as the youngest table tennis player. After falling in the first round at the London games, Zhang is determined to come back stronger in Rio.

"Four years later, I'm a lot more experienced," she said. "I'm a lot more mature, mentally and physically. I've experienced a lot more tough matches. I'm able to handle different situations a lot better. I'm a lot more prepared and ready to get further this time."

That includes tuning out the noise, despite being a part of the world's biggest sporting event.

"I'm going to try to block out all the distractions," Zhang said. "It's going to be really cool -- the Olympic village, Opening Ceremony -- but at the same time, I have to take a step back and think about myself, my mental game and my strategy."

Zhang trains at the India Community Center in Milpitas, where she has learned from coach Massimo Constantini for the past six years. Constantini, who is also a coach on the Olympic team, has seen Zhang blossom from a promising talent to the face of USA table tennis.

"I think she has displayed very good talent, dedication and table tennis," he said. "She is extremely focused during the practice sessions and willing to make something big. For the last five to six years, I believe she has achieved all the goals she set in advance."

Zhang, who took the year off from school at Berkeley to focus on training for the Olympics, said she practices four to six hours a day, six days a week.

"It's a lot of work, a lot of sacrifice, obviously," she said. "That's what it takes to compete at the highest level."

She's been used to demanding schedules for quite some time, attending Paly -- notorious for its rigorous academics -- while climbing the world table tennis rankings. But she said the school supported her athletic endeavors.

"Paly was absolutely great for me," Zhang said. "The teachers and staff were so understanding. I know a lot of schools in the Bay Area; they only focus on your education ... But Paly, they let me go to every single tournament. They helped me with my homework and making up everything, so I'm so grateful that I got that kind of support."

Still, Zhang said it was difficult balancing academics with athletics, especially during her junior and senior years.

"I had to make a lot of sacrifices, whether it was hanging out friends or just doing normal teenage stuff," she said. "In the end, it was worth it. I love table tennis. It's my biggest passion in life, so I don't regret anything."

Teammates describe her as an amicable person off the table, but in competition, she flips the switch.

"Her personality on and off the table is completely different," said Timothy Wang, who is headed to Rio as part of the team event. "Off the table, she's a nice, friendly person and once she gets on the table, she totally changes. She's got her game face and she's ready to win."

Constantini hopes that mentality carries over to Rio, where he wants his players to go beyond simply participating in the Olympics.

"There are a lot of players, once they get (to) the Olympics, they feel, 'I'm done. I made my result. I made my history," he said. "Obviously, it's not like that. I want all the players, not only Lily, to do something really special over there. Not just to be happy to be there, but leave an important mark in Brazil."

The U.S. has never won a medal in the Olympics in table tennis; Zhang's bronze at the Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China in 2014 was the first time the U.S. earned a medal in the sport.

Table tennis has not quite caught on as a mainstream sport in the United States, but Zhang says there are misconceptions that casual fans believe.

"They think it's a basement sport where you just stand and swing your arms wildly around, but there's so much more to that," she said. "This sport requires so much mental and physical capabilities. You're using every single part of your body to play every point. Your legs move, your waists turn, your wrists add power. A lot of people don't realize that and I feel like if we got a lot more media exposure and open up people's eyes to the real sport of table tennis, it would captivate a lot of minds."

The sport continues to grow. This year, both the U.S. men's and women's teams qualified for the Olympics for the first time in history.

"When I first started off, there were only a couple of clubs in the Bay Area," Zhang said. "Now there's dozens of clubs. Especially in the Bay Area, it's the powerhouse of table tennis in America right now. It's producing a lot of amazing juniors. That's what's really going to grow our sport is the juniors and the youth."

Bringing back a medal from Rio would be a gigantic leap forward, one that Zhang bubbles with excitement just thinking about.

"Oh my god, that would be a dream come true," she said. "To be able to bring back that first ever medal for the U.S., it would be such an incredible honor -- an absolute dream come true."

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1 person likes this
Posted by bigfan
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 2, 2016 at 9:27 am

So very proud of this friendly, determined, extraordinary young lady. Go Lily! We will all be rooting for you! Your own box of Wheaties?! Wow! So cool!

5 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 3, 2016 at 4:54 pm

My son graduated with both Lilly Zhang and Keller Chryst (red-shirted Stanford quarterback) and they are both very nice, modest people and I wish them continued success.

My younger son took private lessons for about 6 months and worked with past coaches of hers and they said she was such a nice girl. I got a different story about how her interest started (as her parents play table tennis) but it's clear that it was her interest and she wasn't pushed by Tiger parents.

Lily makes a good point about ping-pong players needing to be very fit athletes. When we found out the training routine and that he would have to run miles, etc. he changed to a different sport!

The Paly wiki page doesn't have her updated status. Good luck, Lily!

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