Table tennis star Lily Zhang talks Rio, her lucky racket, and T-Swift
Lily Zhang is one of America’s most accomplished table tennis players: She’s about to compete in in her second Olympics at the Rio Games, has won the women’s singles title at the 2016 U.S. Table Tennis National Championships, and took home two medals at the 2015 Pan American Games.
But despite her athletic achievements, Zhang is also – in many ways – just a normal 20-year-old.
Case-in-point: Just before I spoke with Zhang last month at a training center in Dunellen, New Jersey, reports surfaced that pop singer Taylor Swift and actor Tom Hiddleston were dating.
“No!” Zhang cried in disbelief. “I thought it was fake. Wait, it’s not fake?” She paused a moment to consider the magnitude of the situation. “You know what? Good for her. She do she.”
Like many young Americans, Zhang is also obsessed with TV sensation "The Walking Dead" – even if her intense schedule has prevented her from finishing the most recent season.
“I’m like halfway through,” she said. “I’m watching it online. So no spoilers right now.”
Clearly, the Olympian has bigger things on her mind.
Zhang was born and raised in Northern California. As a child, she lived on Stanford University’s campus, where her father was a math professor.
After she took up table tennis at age 7, the sport quickly became more than just a hobby. Zhang would practice day and night, often encouraged by her parents; she and her father would even compete in Stanford’s laundry room. To maximize the amount of time spent training, the family would eat meals off the ping-pong table.
“My parents aren’t that serious about [the sport], they just play for fun,” Zhang said. “My first goal was just to beat them.”
And she did – by age 11. That was around the time Zhang completely dedicated herself to the sport.
A few short years later, Zhang qualified for the London 2012 Olympics. At the time those Games took place, she was only 16 years old.
“[In London] I was a little bit inexperienced compared to other players who were mostly in their twenties,” Zhang said. “It was a little bit overwhelming. … Seeing all the lights flashing, the people cheering – it was like a dream come true, honestly. I was a little bit starstruck by everything.”
Zhang reflected on an incident in which she bumped into a famous athlete she didn’t initially recognize.
“I was talking to Misty-May Treanor for a while, I didn’t even know who she was,” Zhang said. “And then my teammate told me, and I was like, ‘Oh my god! That’s so cool.’ … Everyone [in London] was so friendly, so nice. It was incredible to have that bond.”
Four years later, Zhang has amassed additional titles and improved her overall athleticism; she even took a year off of college to better prepare herself for the Rio Games. (Zhang is currently a student at the University of California – Berkeley, where she studies psychology.)
Though she lost in the first round of the singles competition at the London 2012 Games, Zhang expects she’ll perform better this time around.
“I’ve gotten through a lot more tough matches,” Zhang said. “I know how to handle situations better.”
Zhang has a full itinerary for Rio, the least of which involves competing in both the women’s singles and team categories. She plans to catch some beach volleyball matches, as well as gymnastics events and soccer games – “as many sports as I can.”
As a young woman headed to Rio, Zhang is perhaps most at risk concerning the Zika virus. But the table tennis star isn’t particularly worried about the threat of disease.
“It’s in the back of my mind – it’s in everyone’s minds – but I think the Olympic committee will do a really good job taking care of us,” Zhang said. “I think the media is kind of blowing it up a lot.”
Zhang finds herself clearing up a lot of misconceptions these days. Many people, she finds, don’t even know what table tennis is, let alone that it’s an Olympic sport.
“It’s not a hugely popular sport in America right now,” Zhang said. “A lot of people don’t even know the term ‘table tennis.’ They say, ‘What’s that?’ And I have to say, ‘ping-pong.’”
When addressing the uninformed, Zhang stresses the athletic aptitude involved, as well as the game’s mental component. “A lot of people think it’s a basement sport where you just stand and swing your arms wildly around, but there’s so much more to it than that,” Zhang said. “Even the slightest change of spin or power or angle can drastically affect the entire game.”
But sometimes, people still don’t seem to understand the sport’s appeal. “When I talk to people about table tennis, they always end up asking if I’m good at beer pong,” Zhang said. (Her response: “No comment.”)
For the Rio Games, Zhang will use the same racket she played with in London. Though a racket can generally endure about a year of wear and tear, Zhang has used the same one for seven years.
“It’s just my racket,” Zhang said, explaining that the model is no longer in production. “It feels like home to me.” The equipment even has a noticeable dent – caused by erosion – that sometimes causes it to fail inspection at competitions.
In discussing the racket’s appeal, Zhang refers to a hard-to-translate Chinese phrase. “I don’t know how to say it in English,” she laughs. “The longer you use the racket, the more seasoned it becomes – something like that. But I’m hoping I can finish this Olympics [with it], and then maybe I’ll find a new racket.”
One which will hopefully make an appearance beside her at the Tokyo 2020 Games.