Table tennis stars seal spots on U.S. Olympics team

By Dan Friedell - correspondent

CARY -- Three teenagers from California and a 20-year-old from Houston earned a place on the U.S. Olympic team Sunday afternoon at the conclusion of the North American Table Tennis trials at the Bond Park Community Center.

Timothy Wang, a former national champion, defeated teammate Barney Reed in the semifinals of the third qualifying tournament to clinch an Olympic spot, and went on to defeat Canada’s Hongtao Chen in the finals. Lily Zhang, who turns 16 in a couple of months, decisively defeated Canada’s Anqi Luo in the finals of the tournament for the second women’s spot. With the victory, and teammate Ariel Hsing’s win on Friday, the American women also qualified for the three-player Olympic team table tennis competition, and as a result, 15-year-old Erica Wu will join them in London in July.

“It’s been my dream ever since I was a little kid,” said Zhang, who lost just eight points over the past two games of her 4-1 win over Luo. “Now that it’s finally here, it feels like it’s still a dream. It just feels amazing.”

Wu, who finished third among the Americans with a Sunday-morning victory over teammate Judy Hugh, became Games-eligible with Zhang’s victory.

“I’m very grateful to both of them (Hsing and Zhang) for winning those two matches,” Wu said.

Wang started slowly in his match against Chen.

“I wasn’t 100 percent focused. I was thinking, ‘I’ve already made it, maybe I don’t have to try so hard,’” he said. “But after I went down 3-2, I was like, ‘Well, I still have a chance; I might as well go for it, have a happy ending.’”

And with back-to-back tiebreak wins over Chen (13-11 and 12-10), Wang got his happy ending 4-3. Teammates Reed, Michael Landers and Adam Hugh, clad in their white USA warm-up jackets, rushed the court and hoisted Wang into the air to celebrate.

“It feels so much better (to go out with a win),” said Wang, who didn’t enter the trials as a 16-year-old in 2008 because he quit table tennis to play tennis for his high school team near Houston.

The Canadian team also took shape over the weekend. Andre Ho of British Columbia won the first men’s tournament on Friday, and he was joined by Quebec’s Pierre-Luc Hinse, who beat Wang in the finals on Saturday. If Chinese-born Eugene Wang, who was unable to secure Canadian citizenship to participate in Cary, can get his paperwork through by early July, he will be the third member of the Canadian men’s team. Internationally ranked Zhang Mo will be the lone Canadian women’s player in London.

“It worked out 100 percent the way we thought it would,” said USA Table Tennis high performance director Doru Gheorghe.

Even though Hsing, 16, proved herself to be the second-best women’s table tennis player in North America with her performance over the weekend, she’s still unmistakably a teenager.

With her parents waiting outside the community center, having already packed away a handful of souvenir stickers from the event, Hsing burst out of the front door carrying a rolled-up, 10-foot-wide vinyl banner over her head.

How was she going to get it home?

“I haven’t quite thought about that yet,” she said, exhibiting the impulsivity of a teenager.

Now, however, as the leader of the American women’s table tennis contingent, Hsing will have a chance to pick up plenty more souvenirs in the months ahead as she becomes a full-fledged Olympian.

At this point in her career, a medal is unlikely, but she’ll come home from London with another suitcase full of memories.