Ariel Hsing: 'I played against the best in the world!'
Ariel Hsing will be blogging for espnW throughout her training for the Olympics in London this summer.
Maybe the best part about the world championships last month can be described in two simple words: German sausages. I love them! Just joking -- actually, there was something else truly awesome that was table tennis-related. My teammate (and sometimes coach) Gao Jun, who used to compete for China, surprised us when she secretly arranged a practice session with China's Guo Yan and Guo Yue, who are ranked No. 2 and No. 5 in the world, respectively. Wow, really? We weren't expecting it at all, so we felt very lucky and honored to play with these superstars in the table tennis world.
Standing across the table from Guo Yan -- who is also a two-time World Cup champion -- was incredibly nerve-racking. What if I miss the ball? I thought. But she was great about making me feel at ease, saying, "It's OK!" or "It's cute!" in Chinese. We practiced for only 10 minutes because she had just bandaged her arm and wanted to see if she could play with it.
After that, I played Guo Yue for half an hour, which is a really, really long time. Most matches in competition last anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. We focused on drills for blocking, looping and serving. She kind of took charge of what she wanted to do, suggesting drills or asking me to do something and, of course, I would say, "OK, no problem." I was so starstruck and excited that I probably would have said, "OK, no problem" to just about anything they asked. I really admire them.
Everyone at worlds is so good that I didn't go in thinking I might win. The pressure was off. So for me, the tournament was about learning to calm down and control my nerves and to simply stop thinking about anything and just play. My coach always tells me to play tournaments as if they are practices. When you're not anxious, you perform better. So I tried to keep that in mind and mimic my practice mentality at worlds.
I did play against Guo Yan for real during the tournament, and yes, my whole "pretend it's practice" strategy went right out the window for that one. She won that match (3-0), of course. But in the end, she requested to practice with me again, which I guess meant I didn't do so bad after all.
Overall, worlds went pretty well for us, even though we didn't reach our goal of staying in Division 1 as we had two years ago. We came in 23rd, while China was crowned world champion. The fact is, we can't really compete with China right now, but I hope that will change in the near future. In China, table tennis players have a real opportunity to make a career out of their passion, so kids dedicate themselves to following that path from age 10 or 11 and train long hours every day until they achieve it. I've trained in China before and let me tell you, it's exhausting!
In the U.S., going pro in table tennis isn't an option. That's why I train less and am just as focused on the SATs in June, as I am on the continental trials Friday, which will determine the two Olympic berths. I've been diligently studying and training, so please wish me luck on both!
Read Ariel's previous blog entry, about the U.S. trials, here.