Team USA table tennis star Lily Zhang competed at London 2012 when she was only 16. Now with four more years and a Youth Olympic Games under her belt, she is raring to go again for Rio 2016.
Lily Zhang was too young to take part in the first edition of the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010. Yet just two years later, she became a fully-fledged Olympian aged 16, and the youngest table tennis player at London 2012.
“That was an amazing experience for me. I loved every minute of it,” she says, despite the fact that she was eliminated early on, and was somewhat overwhelmed.
“When I was in London, I was kind of star-struck by everyone and kind of overwhelmed and a little bit shy to talk to people,” she recalls. Competing at the 2014 YOG in Nanjing, was a very different, but no less inspiring, experience.
“At the Youth Olympics, everyone is around the same age. It was so cool,” she reflects. “I just felt super comfortable there and free to talk to anyone and everyone. It was another incredible experience.
“The whole Olympic Movement is about bringing people together and having this mutual understanding and respect so I think to be able to have that on a youth level is just incredible. It’s great to give young kids the motivation to enter for the Olympic Games.”
In Nanjing, Lily won bronze in the singles tournament, and in doing so became the first Team USA athlete to win a medal in table tennis at an Olympics or Youth Olympic Games.
The achievement was made all the sweeter coming in China, which has for so long dominated Lily’s sport.
While she dreams of repeating her podium success in either the individual or team competition, she knows she faces a tough challenge, with all of the world’s best exponents and the strongest national teams all vying for honourss.
“In the USA, table tennis isn’t hugely popular,” she explains. “Not a lot of people know about it or play professionally so it will be extremely tough.
“I’m going to be playing in both singles and team. I like both of them a lot.
“In singles you’re obviously more dependent on yourself. I really like that, just going out and giving it my all, but then the team is also really awesome because there’s so much team spirit and I love cheering for my teammates and working together.”
Always a young starter, Lily’s career began almost by accident when she was just seven.
Her father was a professor at Stanford University, California and the family lived on campus, where there was a ping pong table in the laundry room.
“Every time we went to do laundry, I would just play with my parents for fun,” she says. “I really don’t know how it became something serious.
“I don’t think I really started practising hard until I was 10 or 11. When I first started, my first goal was to beat my sister and I guess it just progressed from there!”
Since then, she has won bronze at the Pan Am Games in 2011 and swept the board at the US National Championship, winning the women’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles in 2014.
She qualified for Rio back in April on the first day of the North American Olympic Qualification Tournament, beating teammate Jiaqi Zheng in straight sets.
Now she is training up to six hours a day, six days a week with her club, the India Community Centre (ICC) in California, as well as travelling to training camps and competitions.
Most recently, she took part in the Slovenia Open, gaining yet more experience of professional tournaments.
“It was a great preparation for Rio,” she says. “There were a lot of players also playing at the Olympics there, so to be able to go out and watch them a little bit and gain some experience was really good for me.”
In the meantime, she has put her psychology studies at the University of California, Berkeley on hold for a year while she focuses on preparations for Rio.
And this time around, she feels much more ready for the challenge.
“Four years later, I’ve gone through a lot more experiences and played many more tough matches,” she says.
“I know much better how to handle tough situations; I’m definitely a lot more prepared, so hopefully I’m going to do a lot better.”
Lily plans to resume her studies when she gets back to the US after the Games.
“Going back to Berkeley, it’s going to be tough continuing professionally in table tennis,” she says. “But I’m going to try to balance education with table tennis.”
And she says her university friends have been fully supportive of her sporting career. “They think it’s absolutely awesome. Some of my friends have ping pong tables in their houses so I go out there and play for fun,” she adds.
For now, Lily is looking ahead to her first trip to Rio de Janeiro. “I’m just so excited to be able to go out and represent my country,” she says.
“It’s such a huge honour, every time I go out and put the US flag on my chest, it’s such a humbling feeling."