Ariel Hsing, 16, Aims to Win First U.S. Table Tennis Medal

The burden of high expectations has followed Ariel since she won the under-10 national championship in Las Vegas. After her victory, her parents took her to the popular Bellagio Buffet in the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. They bought $30 buffet tickets and waited in line for more than two hours. But when they finally got their food, Ariel was too sick to her stomach to eat, her father said — despite winning, Ariel's nerves persisted. (The trip to the buffet was not a total waste, though — the family posed for a photo with boxer Mike Tyson, who happened to be sitting right behind them and offered Hsing some encouraging words.)

Along with their lone male counterpart, 20-year-old Texan Timothy Wang, Hsing, Zhang and Hu are widely considered to be underdogs in London. China, where table tennis prodigies forgo schooling for training at academies since childhood, has won 41 of the 76 table tennis medals since 1988, when it became an Olympic sport. At No. 115 in the worldwide women's rankings, Hsing leads the four U.S. Olympians.

But America's table tennis prospects may brighten in 2016 — in the under-18 rankings, Hsing ranks 14th in the world. Unlike many previous American Olympic table tennis teams, composed of expats who once competed for other countries, all four on the current roster were born in the United States.

Hsing and Zhang will play in both the women's team event and the women's singles event, while Erica Hu will play only in the team event. Wang will play only in the men's singles event.

"I haven't seen this level of competitiveness since I've been coaching," said Davis, who in 1990 founded the junior training program at the Palo Alto Table Tennis Club — one of a growing number of table tennis clubs in the area.

Along with her clothing and gear, Hsing brought with her to London a small box containing a piece of paper that says, "My goal is to become an Olympic champion one day." She wrote that in a blog post for ESPN Women when she was eight, and convinced herself that if she opened the box, her dream would not materialize. But when she qualified for the women's Olympic team, after eight years of letting the box sit in her room as a reminder of her ambition, she opened it.

A straight-A student, Hsing says she plans to attend college, though her father suggested she may take a year off, depending on where her table tennis career has taken her. Hsing is already talking about the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Hsing's future will become clearer upon her return from London, Davis said, but it is difficult to imagine that she will leave the sport anytime soon.

"I always see athletes coming back [from the Olympics] saying, 'I want to be part of that again,'" Davis said. "It's tough to let that go."

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