May 9, 2012 5:58 p.m.
The day begins around 7 a.m., at the back of the house, in a room outfitted with rows of fluorescent lights, a ping-pong table and little else.
This is where Ariel Hsing comes to practice alone. She starts by crouching silently at one end of the table, then springs up and, with a flick of her paddle, sends a serve whizzing across the net.
The 16-year-old repeats this motion hundreds of times, the balls collecting against a far wall. She must concentrate on hitting with maximum spin, but other thoughts occasionally creep in.
Thoughts of precalculus and English composition. Thoughts of environmental science.
“That’s when I step back from the table,” she says. “I try to calm down.”
Life can get complicated for a girl who falls in love with — and becomes very good at — a sport not many people care about in this country.
Ariel is headed for the 2012 London Olympics this summeras a member of the U.S. team. If she lived in Europe or Asia, she might be enrolled in a sports academy, training full-time and looking forward to a pro career.
But the U.S. has no such academies, no big leagues for table tennis. “The options in North America are not so good,” a national coach says. Ariel must think about a future beyond the game.
So this cheerful teenager — with colorful barrettes in her straight, black hair — divides her time between training and high school. Grades are important because she hopes to get into Stanford or Harvard.
That means waking up early, staying up late and constantly shifting her attention from twisting serves to stacks of homework due for honors math class.
“It can be tough,” she says. “You have to lead a double life.”
A family’s priorities
An artificial Christmas tree stands in the living room of their two-story home south of downtown San Jose, its branches still festooned with ornaments in late April. The Hsings apologize, saying they are organized when it comes to Ariel’s training, not so much with other things.
Paddles, shoes and boxes of balls lay scattered around the house. The garage is filled with equipment, including several brands of costly machines that spit out balls at various speeds and with various spins.
When their only child began playing seriously, the Hsings set aside a spare bedroom for live-in coaches — talented players they brought over from China — and added the practice space in back.
After morning drills, Ariel attends school until 1 p.m. — she took extra classes in advance of this Olympic year — then heads for afternoon training sessions.
“Time to take a nap,” she says, ducking into the family’s minivan and promptly dozing off for the 20-minute drive.
In this country, table tennis is often relegated to industrial parks where room is plentiful and rent is cheap. Her first stop is just such a club in Fremont, with nine tables and more than a dozen badminton courts spread across a cavernous, high-ceilinged space.
One of her numerous personal coaches is waiting to begin the workout.
Their shots zip back and forth with blurry speed, the sound like fingernails drumming on a counter. Ariel never stops moving, bouncing, trying to stay in position so that, even on wide balls, she can maintain a compact, powerful swing.
The coach exhorts her in Chinese, insisting that she transition quickly from offense to defense, adapting to the nuances of each point.
“Good players are trickier,” Ariel says. “They can change their tactics fast.”
The drills continue for two hours — she banks as many as 25 to 30 hours of training each week — before it comes time for another session with a different coach at a club down the road. Along the way, she stops to wolf down a turkey sub.
“Two of my many talents,” she says with a grin. “Eating and sleeping.”
‘A little crazy’
Back when her mother grew up in the Henan province of China, children took turns smacking balls across a concrete table in the schoolyard. Xin Jiang was good enough to be chosen for her city’s team but faced a dilemma.
“We were so poor, there were no tennis shoes,” she recalls. “I borrowed a pair of white shoes from my grandmother.”
Two decades later, she had immigrated to the U.S. and married a fellow computer engineer from Taiwan named Michael Hsing. They frequented a table tennis club near their home.
One night they could not find a baby-sitter and brought along their 7-year-old daughter. Ariel showed immediate potential, catching the eye of the club’s coach and prompting a brash prediction from her mother.
On the drive home, Jiang told her husband: “When Ariel makes the Olympics, we will pay for the grandparents to go but what about the other relatives?”
Michael Hsing recalls: “I thought she was a little crazy.”
But within a few years, Ariel began rising through the junior ranks, developing a “two-wing attack” — hitting hard from both the forehand and backhand sides — as she traveled the nation and then the world to compete.
The hours of practice were fun, the rhythm of the game a tonic as she fixed on the ball, thinking of nothing else. She could remain poised during matches.
By 2009, her record included finals appearances at several big junior events. By 2011, facing older players, she had won a Pan American Games bronze and a U.S. women’s championship.
A figure skater or tennis player of similar talent might have attracted lucrative sponsorships; the most a young American table tennis player could hope for was free clothing and equipment.
Hsing figures he has spent $40,000 a year on coaches and travel. He quit his job at IBM to work from home, making time to ferry his daughter through her busy schedule.
“Every three months,” he says, “we beg her to stop so we can get back to normal.”
The family made a deal at the very start: Ariel could pursue table tennis only if she maintained high grades.
“Education comes first,” her father says. “If she gets a B, she has to stop playing until she raises it to an A.”
So far, she has earned those A’s, but public schools dislike her travel schedule — too many absences cut into their state funding — so Ariel enrolled at the private Valley Christian High this year. A counselor watches her shift focus the instant she steps on campus.
“Usually you see people go one way or the other, all sports or all academics,” Erik Ellefsen says. “I’ve never seen a student like this before.”
The change is so complete that classmates were startled when a documentary crew recently followed her around. Many had no idea she was an elite athlete. They just thought of her as a smart kid who misses a lot of school.
Ariel does not see anything extraordinary about this balancing act; she describes it in the most practical terms.
“I can’t make a living from table tennis,” she says. “If I don’t go to college, what’s my career going to be?”
But this double life comes at a cost. She has no time to hang out with friends on weekends and concedes, “There are a lot of things I’ve missed out on.”
The junior prom a few weeks ago was her first school dance.
Odds seem long
At present, the U.S. has qualified for only three Olympic slots. Ariel holds the highest world ranking among the two women at No. 134 while the men’s player stands at No. 381.
They earned their way to London in a pair of tournaments against North American competition.
“They have hope,” national women’s coach Doru Gheorghe says. “But from hope to becoming a world-class player, you’ve got to put more into it.”
Practice isn’t enough. The Americans need to face players with different styles and spins, which means traveling to tournaments in Europe and Asia more often. The coach says: “There is always a battle with school, parents, homework.”
After Ariel’s last training session ends around 7 p.m., she returns home with no rest in sight.
“Dinner and studying,” she says. “If I have a lot to do, I stay up late.”
Her bedroom is decorated with stuffed animals and posters of her icon, Zhang Yining, a table tennis legend. As a teenager in China, Zhang attended the Beijing Shichahai Sports School, where she could focus mainly on the game.
Life is very different for Ariel as she hunkers down to review English comp. The Olympics seem very far away.
using the number/letter grid:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
A B C D E F G H I
J K L M N O P Q R
S T U V W X Y Z
A = 1 J = 1 S = 1
B = 2 K = 2 T = 2
C = 3 L = 3 U = 3
D = 4 M = 4 V = 4
E = 5 N = 5 W = 5
F = 6 O = 6 X = 6
G = 7 P = 7 Y = 7
H = 8 Q = 8 Z = 8
I = 9 R = 9
how she obtains her heart’s desire = AG = Inspired. Inspirational.
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