A few gentle reminders from her coach, Lily Yip, was all Zhang needed. In the end, the Olympian let her talent for table tennis take center stage.
The result was the first Olympic medal of any kind by an American in the sport usually dominated by Asians.
Zhang defeated Japan's Miyu Kato, 10-12, 11-9, 12-10, 9-11, 11-9, 11-8, in the bronze medal contest of the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China.
Kato entered the match, which lasted more than an hour, as the world's fifth-ranked junior player, and was ranked 60th overall. Zhang, the top-ranked player in North America, had recently fallen out of the overall top 100, though she started the year ranked 67th.
"Miyu is an amazing player," Zhang said. "I was able to calm myself down by telling myself to not think about the points. A lot of times I rush too much and then I keep losing more points. Winning here in China is an amazing experience."
The fourth game, in which she lost to even the best-of-seven match at 2-2, turned out out top be the key moment.
"In the fourth game, when I led 9-5 and then lost, I had started thinking ahead," Zhang said. "I kept thinking that if I could win the game I'd be three-one ahead, a big advantage."
Zhang lost six points in a row, but then recovered in the fifth game to win the first four points.
"After Lily lost the fourth game, I told her not to worry, don't play too safe, work harder and fight," Yip said. "Both players focused on their backhands and they were a little afraid to use their forehands. I tried to encourage Lily to move to direction of the play and to be prepared to play long rallies because Miyu played very safely. So it was important that Lily was aggressive."
Kato drew within 4-3 when Yip called for a timeout and took Zhang aside for a quick confidence booster.
The talk seemed to help. Zhang won the next two sets, both of which were hotly-contested, to win the bronze medal.
"During the time out, my coach told me to take a breather and not to be anxious," Zhang said. "Mentally I felt good, I tried hard not to think of being up or being down."
In the end, Zhang was more up than down.
"I wanted this medal so much, not just for me, but for my country," she said. "I had to keep myself calm before the match and try not to think about it too much. I feel like I am floating, I am that ecstatic."
ITTF editor Ian Marshall wrote that Zhang had come close to a medal many times.
"At the ZEN-NOH 2014 World Team Championships earlier in the year, and in December 2012 in the Indian city of Hyderabad at the World Junior Championships, Lily Zhang had excelled expectations," he wrote. "In Tokyo she was the backbone of the United States Team in the Championship Division; in Hyderabad, she reached the quarter-final stage of the Girls' Singles event. However, there were no medals to show for her efforts."
Zhang, who speaks fluent Chinese, fixed that in the Chinese city of Nanjing. Her parents were born in China and both were on hand to witness the event.
In Tuesday's semifinal, Zhang dropped a difficult, 11-1, 5-11, 11-8, 11-9, 11-6, decision to Hong Kong's Hoo Kem Doo, who entered the competition ranked 27th in the world by the International Table Tennis Federation.
Zhang needed 50 minutes to dispatch Belgium's Lisa Lung in the best-of-seven Round of 16, 11-5, 11-7, 6-11, 11-7, 10-12, 11-5.
"Her backhand is very strong, and it was not an easy match," Zhang told USA Table Tennis. "I won the first two games but then in the third, I started to rush. After the third game, I played more to the middle but I think one of the main reasons I won was because I kept calm."
Thailand's Tamolwan Khetkhaun gave Zhang all she could handle through three sets. Zhang took over in the fourth set to claim the victory, 11-8, 12-10, 12-10, 9-11, 11-3. The match took 48 minutes to complete.
Lily was under pressure," Yip said. "She was very strong mentally and she played with good control."
Zhang continues her table tennis career at the University of California in the fall. The Golden Bears placed second in both women's team and women's doubles at the TMS College Table Tennis Championships in April.
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