July 25, 2012— -- 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.
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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."
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."