Moving forward, one trial at a time

By Whitney Ping (Originally published on 2/27/2008 in the Oregonian. Photo courtesy of Gerry Chua)

I won my first match of the U.S. Olympic table tennis trials last month, let out a yell and stuck a fist in the air. I walked back to my corner where my father, who is my coach, sat and I gave him a high-five.

I let my racket loose from my hand, having clenched it so hard for those six games -- a 4-2 victory in a best-of-seven match -- that the calluses I've had on my right palm for the last 12 years actually grew larger. And, despite being in good physical condition, I slumped down in a chair and was shaking.

Maybe the slight shakes were due to a stream of adrenaline, but that first match was hard -- not simply from the physical exertion, but also from the tired feeling that comes from the mental and emotional tax that each Olympic hopeful is required to give.
Every match at the Olympic trials was like that. There was no opponent against whom I could afford to put forth only a percentage of what I had to give, because losses are where the dream ends. And the dream continues by placing in the top four in the nation and advancing, one step closer, to Beijing 2008.

So, needless to say, the pressure is tremendous and perhaps more so in sports such as mine, which make their orbit around our Olympic sun once every four years. It is a blessing in the sense that athletes in a similar position value the spirit of the Olympic Games, as it does not make many orbits during our athletic careers.

And it's fun to see people get excited for sports that don't get the typical seasonal attention. The trials were played before a sold-out crowd at Drexel University in Philadelphia; the majority of the spectators never had been exposed to the elite-level version of table tennis.

It is a sport that is so fast that the ball is now 40 millimeters in diameter -- because it was too quick and hard for audiences to follow at 38 millimeters -- so skillful that my teammates and I can now list hand-eye coordination on our resumes, so intense that I'd dare you to measure the decibels of a yelp of excitement after a point won against the revving of a motorcycle.

But the virtue of the four-year turn of the Games can also be its downside; athletes practice long and hard for an opportunity that presents itself rarely. From one Olympic year to the next, it is not unusual for many of us amateur athletes to have spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel and training expenses, not to mention the hours and the lost opportunity of doing illustrious "other" things, whatever they may be.

My 21st birthday was spent in the gym, and I haven't been home on Thanksgiving for the last five years. It is the life of an athlete, and although it might look glorious on the occasions when we can thrust our fists in the air, those victories certainly come at an expense.

Perhaps the greatest cost, and yet the most inevitable, is that we are vulnerable to losing. Sometimes it is due to a bad day, a better opponent, crummy luck. Whatever the reason, it hurts -- especially when you really care.

I faced that brink during the Olympic trials. After winning my first match, I lost the next two. Looking back, it's funny how many emotions a three-day weekend of table tennis can bring, pretty much every one imaginable and at the extremes. I was upset about the back-to-back losses but not scared.

I brushed off anyone who tried to console me, saying that it wasn't the time to talk. I still had matches to play and knew that nothing was over. That's part of the beauty of why we play, to determine the unpredictable.

I would have loved to go undefeated at those trials, and I did try to do so, but at the end of the day, an A-plus wasn't needed in this pass/no pass class. The U.S. qualifications determined the team sent to face Canada for the North American Olympic trials in April. For now, I'm happy to report that I passed.

It is exactly what I wanted and needed: for the dream to go on.

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