In two breathless years, Hugo Calderano went from competing at the Youth Olympic Games Nanjing 2014 to thrilling his hometown at Rio 2016, where Brazil fell head over heels for their young table tennis player. As excitement builds for Buenos Aires 2018, the 22-year-old reflects on his emotional journey from Nanjing to Rio, offering insight into what it’s like to have a home Olympic Games to work towards, and how it feels to play in front of a roaring crowd.
Making Brazilian history
Hugo Calderano got his first experience of a major multi-sports event at the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) Nanjing 2014 – and made history along the way. When Calderano won bronze, he became the first Brazilian table tennis player to claim a medal in an Olympic competition.
Unsurprisingly, he’s been credited with lifting the popularity and increasing the exposure of table tennis in Brazil. With his country lacking a strong tradition in the sport, it was a “very emotional moment” for Calderano to look up and see a Brazilian flag alongside a Japanese and a Chinese flag in Nanjing, as he proudly stood on the podium.
Less than a year later, he was competing in the 2015 Pan-American Games in Toronto (Canada), taking on board what he’d learnt from Nanjing.
“You can learn a lot from being with athletes from other sports, and this helped me move forward,” he explains. “The Pan-American Games are a big event in the Americas, and competing there led me to Rio 2016. But Nanjing was my first experience, and I think I got the best out of it.”
Competing for honours and finding the balance
In fact, Calderano credits the opportunity to play for a medal at a young age as being crucial in helping him graduate to the senior Olympic level. “It helped me a lot to be part of the YOG because I was there competing for a medal,” he says. “It gave me that feeling of winning a medal, and what it’s like to compete in an Olympic event.”
The spirit of the YOG lives long in the memory, too, and it’s the balance between competing and having fun that makes the event special for Calderano.
“Everybody was around my age – it was almost a party! But, of course, everybody wanted to win a medal and perform well,” he adds. “It’s about finding a balance between enjoying the event and taking that energy to your sport.”
“The best experience I’ve ever had”
For any young Japanese athletes competing at Buenos Aires 2018, in the back of their mind they’ll know that a home edition of the Olympic Games – Tokyo 2020 – could be the next step. That’s a feeling Rio-born Calderano knows all about. The Brazilian qualified for Rio 2016 by winning the men’s singles event at the Pan-American Games, and described competing in his home city as “amazing”, with the crowd leaving a lasting impact on him.
“The crowd gave me so much love; I’ve never played with so much support,” he recalls. “There were thousands of people watching, and in table tennis that’s not a common thing because it’s not a leading sport. We’re used to playing with only a few people in the audience – it was totally different to what we were used to.”
Calderano battled all the way to the fourth round in Rio before losing 4-2 to the eventual bronze medallist, Japan’s Jun Mizutani. He fought well, coming back from two games down to level the match, and he was filled with emotion at the end – but not because of the scoreline.
“Even if I had won I would have cried,” he reveals. “I had so many emotions at the same time. To have so many people watching and rooting for me was unique – it was the best experience I’ve ever had.”
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