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Olympic table tennis born in the South Bay

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The US dominates in many Olympic sports – track and field, swimming, basketball. But, one sport the US has never won a medal for is table tennis.

This year, the US team is hoping to change that. It’s going to be challenging. Only 4 players qualified to compete on the 2012 US Olympic Table Tennis team. Three of those four live and train right here in the Bay Area at an unlikely Olympic training ground – a converted warehouse that’s part of the Indian Community Center in Milpitas (ICC).

The players are Timothy Wang, who is originally from Houston, Texas but has lived in Milpitas for the past two years to train. At 21 years old, he is the top male player in the country; and the 2010 US national men’s table tennis champion.

Sixteen-year-old Ariel Hsing of San Jose says she has been playing since she was 7, and last but certainly not least – unless you’re talking about her age – is Lily Zhang. Until last month, she was one of two youngest members of Team USA. Wang, a Taiwanese American, and Hsing and Zhang – both Chinese American – have been playing table tennis at the ICC since they were barely 2nd and 3rd graders, and here they are now, Olympians.

They’re training on a Thursday afternoon in a huge hall with a red floor and 25 blue tables set up, each with a player on either side ranging in age from six to 21. As the balls are hit back and forth, Coaches pace between the tables- watching but not hovering. Olympians Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang are playing against each other, playing intensely.

For all three players, getting to the Olympics is a long time dream. When Hsing was eight, she wrote that dream on a piece of paper, sealed it up, put it in this little box, and for eight years didn't look inside that box. Eight years later, her dream came true.

Hsing says, unlike other kids who may learn their sports at a camp or through lessons, her start was right at home. Her mom liked to play table tennis when she was a little girl. “Then one day,” she says, “my mom and dad couldn’t find a babysitter for me, so they just brought me along to the club.” Immediately, she fell in love with the sport, and it became her passion.

For Lily Zhang, whose parents come from China’s Shaanxi province, table tennis started as a fun family activity that then grew more serious when she started training.

Their coach is MassimoConstantini, the internationally renowned former coach of a number of national teams including Italy and India. Costantini says, in table tennis, family support and heritage play a large role, and the fact that the top players in the country are the children of Chinese immigrants is no coincidence. “You have to think where the sport has strong roots,” he says. “In China, table tennis is the daily bread. They finish work, they play table tennis. They have cement table tennis tables on the streets – so table tennis is in their DNA!”

Zhang, Hsing and Wang all say their lives were forever changed once they won the qualifiers back in April, and were officially Olympic-bound. They train from 16 to 20 hours a week, and have sacrificed the teen activities like hanging out with friends at the movies. Hsing says she sleeps at 1 or 2am every night after training, homework, and dinner.

The ICC’s table tennis program started in 2005 by Rajul Sheth, an Indian immigrant who played the Indian national circuit for 14 years. He came to the US seeking a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, and ended up starting one of the country’s premier table tennis programs at the ICC. Sheth started with just 5 kids, which has grown now to 200.

He is excited that his program produced three quarters of the US table tennis team this year, but says for him, the center is about more than just table tennis. The ICC Table Tennis program is about global dialog and understanding.

“Just imagine,” he says, “ I have 10 kids right now from India who are like age of 15. They are now training with our American-born Indian kids and Chinese kids, and when you see them after training is over, the Indian kids share their experience of what happens in India, American kids share their experience how their school works – that's more exciting than just table tennis training here, and that cultural exchange is also very important for our kids.”

Rajul Sheth and coach MassimoConstantini have no illusions about their superstars going far, playing against powerhouse nations like China and Korea. They acknowledge that a medal is a long shot. “But,” Constantini says, “we should dream. I think dream is the best motivation the player can have. If our players can break into the top 100 in the world- that's a good start being 16 and 17 years old.”

Lily Zhang says she’s not too worried about winning. “And so this time,” she says, “ I’m just gonna go out there and play my best and hopefully beat a few people, but in the future I kindawanna win a medal for the US.”

Rajul Sheth gathers the players and coach Massimo to pose for a final picture before they leave for London – a portrait that reflects an Italian immigrant, an Indian immigrant, and the son and daughters of Asian immigrants reaching the top together to represent the USA. It’s the story of America. And whether or not they bring home medals, that story is pure gold.

Timothy Wang will play his first singles preliminary this Saturday at 2:30am PST. Ariel Hsing and Lily Zhang play as a team on Friday August 3rd at 2am PST, when they play against Japan.

Hana Baba is host of Crosscurrents, KALW's weeknight newsmagazine that broadcasts on KALW Public Radio in the San Francisco Bay Area.