U.S. table tennis players in mix for '08 Olympic bid

Updated: January 13, 2008, 5:46 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Gao Jun gleaned at least one tip in her 10 years as a U.S. citizen from the MVPs and All-Stars in the more traditional stick-and-ball sports than table tennis: Never worry about waffling on retirement.

The former Olympic medalist just might call it quits after the 2008 Beijing Games in August and perhaps focus on coaching.

Then again, maybe not.

"I say this is my last, but you never know," Gao said on Sunday. "In 2000, I said, 'This is my last Olympics.' I played Athens. So you never know. If nobody can beat me, maybe I'll still play."

Gao was mostly an interested spectator this weekend at the U.S. Olympic table tennis trials at Drexel University. Gao and Chen Wang are in the top 20 world rankings and already earned an automatic spot in China.

Yao Huang (8-0), Nan Li (7-1), Jacqueline Lee (6-2) and Whitney Ping (5-3) secured spots on Sunday in the North American Trials in April in Vancouver, British Columbia. They'll compete with Canada for the final Olympic spot.

"It's unlikely for the Chinese to lose because they're so dominant," Ping said.

David Zhuang (9-2), Han Xiao (9-2), Eric Owens (8-3), and 49-year-old Yinghua Cheng (8-3) all advanced out the round-robin men's draw and will play in Canada. All three men's Olympic slots are available.

"I think we have a lot of experience and I think we can beat the Canadians," Owens said.

Gao, who turns 39 on Jan. 25, won the silver medal in doubles playing for her native China in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. She immigrated to the U.S. a few years later and twice played for Team USA in the Olympics. But Gao's presence at the trials was one of the few times over the past year that she's been in America. She still trains 2½ hours a day almost every day of the week in China, a country that boasts the deepest commitment and the best players in the sport.

Playing for the Chinese national team also brings its own unique pressures, comparable to the expectations of reaching the World Series for the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals.

"If you lose gold, it means you lose," Gao said. "But playing for other countries, like the U.S., if I get silver, it means big win. To play for the U.S., the pressure comes from myself."

Gao was all smiles when she played a brief exhibition match against 12-year-old Ariel Hsing, USA Table Tennis' top-ranked girl under 14.

Fans left their bleacher seats and pressed against the court to snap pictures and take a closer look at both an Olympian and perhaps a future one. Gao acted in mock protest when the official kept awarding points to the beaming Hsing.

"She's our future," Gao said.

Maybe so, but Gao added that Hsing would likely have to leave the United States and train elsewhere, probably China, if she ever wanted to raise her game to the level of an Olympic medalist.

Gao believes she can still win a medal playing in her home country, an opportunity she called a "dream."

"The medal is the first goal, but the second is I really want to make U.S. table tennis improve," he said. "I want to let the country know what is real table tennis so people can get interested in the sport."

Table tennis officials were ecstatic with the support over the four days in Philadelphia. Total attendance, which included former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, was about 5,500 with the bulk of the fans packing the gym on Saturday and Sunday.

"I had a feeling like I was a real table tennis professional," Ping said. "You don't ever really get that feeling in the United States. I hope the trials are here every [time]."

Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press