The list of Olympic sports in which the United States has never won a medal is short: badminton, team handball and table tennis. But with some luck, 16-year-old Ariel Hsing hopes to take the last one off the list.
A rising high school junior in San Jose, Calif., Hsing is the highest-ranked in a trio of teenage athletes who have earned a reputation as the next generation of American table tennis. The other two, Lily Zhang, 16, and Erica Hu, 15, also hail from Silicon Valley, where Chinese immigrants attracted by the technology boom have carried their culture's appreciation of table tennis with them.
In some ways, Hsing is an ordinary California teenager. She dreams of going to Stanford; she lists Katy Perry among her favorite artists; she hopes to meet superstar swimmer Michael Phelps in London this summer.
But most of Hsing's life has been anything but ordinary. At age 8, just one year after her parents signed her up with coach Dennis Davis, she became the national under-10 table tennis champion.
That title won her a trip to Omaha, Neb., where billionaire tycoons of finance and computing Warren Buffet and Bill Gates invited her to Buffett's three-day extravaganza celebrating his 75th birthday. Since then, Hsing has played the Nebraska native, whom she now affectionately calls "Uncle Warren," at shareholder conferences held by Buffet's company, Berkshire Hathaway.
At age 7, Hsing fell in love with table tennis — not ping pong, she is quick to insist — by accident, said her father, software engineer Michael Hsing. One day, he and his wife, hardware engineer Xin Jiang, could not find a babysitter for Ariel, so they took her with them to the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club, where they were regulars.
After watching her parents play, Ariel demanded a paddle and tried her hand. Almost immediately, coaches at the club could tell that she had enormous potential, Michael Hsing told ABC News.
On their way home, Hsing's mother was unusually quiet. But before pulling into the driveway, she whispered, "When we go to the Olympics, we can pay for Ariel's grandparents, but how will we pay for the other relatives?"
The road to London from the Hsings' San Jose garage, where Michael Hsing said the family spent countless hours playing table tennis, was paved with sacrifice.
Ariel practiced on the table for about five hours a day, six days a week, in addition to daily physical training, said Davis, who also coached her teammate Zhang for seven years. She restricts her diet to only healthy foods, eschewing the Nutella chocolate hazelnut spread she craves. She had to postpone taking the SAT to defend her 2011 North American Cup title.
Ariel's career is a family affair. All of the Hsings' vacation time for the past five years has been devoted to tournaments. Two years ago, Michael Hsing left his job at IBM to study table tennis full time.
Michael Hsing said he often worries that his daughter has not had the time for an adolescence.
"I admire her — I don't think I could do [what Ariel does]," he said. "Too much work. Too much pressure. She really sacrifices a lot."