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2016 Olympics: Top table tennis player Lily Zhang brings Pac-12 flavor to Team USA

Aug 11, 2016
Tom Pennington/Getty

RIO DE JANEIRO -- When Lily Zhang first fell in love with table tennis, there weren't any cameras, bright lights or thousands of people watching in an arena. There were washing machines, drying machines, forks, knives and spoons.

America's top female table tennis player had humble beginnings, but she's already playing in her second Olympics in Rio. Not bad for a 20-year-old.

See, Zhang grew up on The Farm. Not just A Farm, but The Farm, home to Stanford University. Her father was a math professor so they lived on campus. Whenever the family needed to do laundry, little Lily didn't mind. There was a ping-pong table in the laundry room, and she loved to go back-and-forth with her parents while the clothes tumbled around.

When the Zhang family got back home, the table tennis didn’t stop. They had a fold-up table that got so much use, it eventually turned into the dining room table.

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“Every time we wanted to pull it out and play, we'd have to move the dining table and then unfold the ping-pong table and then pack everything up,” Zhang said. “We just decided it'd be easier for us to just keep the ping-pong table as the dining table and just put a tablecloth on it when we eat. Then if we wanted to play we could just take the tablecloth off. It was so much more convenient.”

Now that’s dedication. Perhaps it’s no wonder why she qualified for her first Olympics at the age of 16.

Growing up, Zhang’s dream school was definitely Stanford. But a couple of years back, she received an acceptance letter from California, and everything changed, as she traded her red and white aspirations for blue and gold ones. After taking a year off to train for Rio, including three months at an elite academy in Vienna, Austria, Zhang is set to re-enroll at Berkeley in the fall.

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“It actually was kind of my dream to go to Stanford when I was like 10, 11, 12 and my dad definitely encouraged it,” Zhang said. “But in the end, I decided Cal was also an incredible school and I loved the atmosphere and environment there. So, I love both schools.”

After bowing out in the first round of singles competitions in London four years ago, Zhang reached the third round in Rio before suffering a loss to No. 18-ranked South Korean Hyowon Suh.

“Definitely very proud of myself,” Zhang said of her run in Rio. “But I'm hoping that in the future I can get that medal for the U.S. because we've never won a medal in table tennis yet. That's my goal.”

Zhang also ran into some adversity in her match against Suh, as the rubber coating ripped on her lucky paddle, the same one she’s been using for nearly eight years. No worries, though, as Zhang should have it repaired by Friday’s team matches.

“Hopefully it’ll work it’s magic again,” she said.

Zhang’s Olympics aren’t over just yet. On Friday, Team USA’s trio of Zhang, Jiaqi Zheng, and Jennifer Wu will face Germany in the table tennis team competitions. In a nod to Zhang’s development over the past few years, she will be teaming up with Zheng in doubles competitions. Funny thing, because Zheng served as Zhang’s table tennis teacher when she was still a youngster.

“I used to train with her in someone's basement or garage,” Zhang said. “She used to coach me. It's so funny that seven, eight years later, now we're on the same team. Crazy to me.”

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With so many global powers based out of Asia and Europe, odds are stacked against the American side to medal in the team event. But the trio did claim gold at the 2015 Pan-American games as a team.

Win or lose, Zhang is just hoping this is the beginning of a new, better chapter for Team USA table tennis.

“It's so cool,” Zhang said. “I can't believe I have the opportunity to not only go once, but to go twice to the Olympic games. It's such a huge honor to wear the U.S. flag on my chest. I'm so stoked about it every time.”