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The United States has never won an Olympic medal in Table Tennis. China has long dominated the sport, taking almost every medal since 1992. That's not likely to change this year at the Summer Olympics in London. But one young American woman is working hard and hoping some day to win at the highest levels.
Reporter Dave DeWitt, of North Carolina Public Radio, has her story.
DAVE DEWITT, BYLINE: Ariel Hsing is 16 years old and she already has all the skills of the finest table tennis players - quick hands, perfect balance and strong lungs.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING)
DEWITT: That word she is yelling is sa. She says it has no meaning, but shouting it helps her relieve stress. And she's putting a lot of that on herself lately.
ARIEL HSING: Like a few weeks ago, I was like oh, my gosh, this is the most important thing ever. I have to make it. Because if I make it not only will I be able to go to the Olympics, but like it'll help so much later in life, too - whether it's like college applications or like maybe even job applications.
DEWITT: Ariel credits her parents with easing her mind. She got interested in the game at the age of seven while watching them play at the local rec center. Her mother was a former table tennis player in China. And her father, Michael, is a software engineer who emigrated from China.
MICHAEL HSING: But one of our philosophy is like we care about the process over the result.
(SOUNDBITE OF YELLING, CHERRING AND APPLAUSE)
DEWITT: Ariel normally starts out tournaments slowly, and these Olympic trials are no exception. It's a unique format, with Americans competing against Canadians in a series of mini-tournaments for four spots in the Olympics. It also means Ariel will face her friend and fellow California teenager Erica Wu in the semifinal. It's something she's used to.
HSING: I mean, we're friends off the court. But like when you're actually there during the match, obviously you pretend like you're playing like an enemy, almost. And then you have to just fight your hardest. But, of course, like once the match ends, then you're friends again.
DEWITT: Ariel beats Wu and advances to the final. A win and she's in the Olympics. Her opponent is a woman old enough to be her mother. Chris Xu is the top Canadian qualifier who, before she emigrated, won a Chinese national championship. The match does not start well for Ariel.
(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIENCE)
DEWITT: Ariel's mother, watching from the bleachers, closes her eyes before each point starts. Her father looks like he's in physical pain. But then a few points go her way and Ariel's confidence is back. She guts out a win to tie it up at two games each, and soon she's at match point.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
DEWITT: After shaking hands with her opponent, Ariel runs to her parents, who have burst into tears.
HSING: Didn't I tell you were going to do it?
HSING: Yeah, I've been dreaming about it. I've been wishing for it. But when you, like - when I actually won, it kind of hit me unexpected. So it's pretty amazing, I guess right now. I've never felt like this before.
DEWITT: Later, Ariel looks relieved as she cheers her American teammates on in their matches. Three of them will come with her to London. There, the pressure will be lifted just a bit. Ariel is ranked 125th in the world, and has very little chance to medal. But that doesn't mean she can relax. Next month, she's taking the SATs for college.
For NPR News, I'm Dave DeWitt in Cary, North Carolina.
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