Next week’s U.S. Olympic table tennis trials are set to include an 11-year-old girl and a 93-year-old man, but perhaps the most intriguing participant is Wang Chen.
Wang, 42, could be called the greatest U.S. Olympic table tennis player. She reached the quarterfinals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, her birthplace, the best-ever finish by an American in a sport that debuted at the Games in 1988.
Long before Beijing, she was twice passed over for the super-competitive Chinese Olympic team, retiring and moving to the U.S. in 1999.
She worked by giving table tennis lessons, was convinced to return to competition, became a U.S. citizen and made the significantly less-competitive U.S. team for 2008.
Wang retired again after fulfilling her goal by reaching the Beijing Games, where she was eliminated in the quarterfinals by a Singapore player.
She returned to her home in New York and to working at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
She started a family, had a baby boy, Ryan, who is now 4 years old.
Last spring, Wang needed more help running her club. So she hired a coach from Dallas, Yutian Wang, who upon moving to New York decided that he wanted to play at the U.S. Open that July.
Wang agreed to coach and train with him.
“He said, Chen, you’re still good,” Wang said. “He said you should play, otherwise you waste your talent.”
That, combined with a motivation to lose 20 pregnancy pounds, was enough for Wang to unretire. She made her international return at the Czech Open in August, winning two of three qualifying round matches.
“I realized table tennis can keep me younger if I continue playing,” she said.
In November, her son walked onto the court while she played a local tournament against men in Westchester, N.Y.
By December, she reached the semifinals of the U.S. Championships, losing to the eventual champion.
“That was a big leap for me,” Wang said. “I have more confidence.”
She is seeded first in next week’s U.S. Olympic trials in Greensboro, N.C., thanks largely to her results through 2008 as the U.S. table tennis rankings never reset.
The 16 women in the field look to finish in the top three to earn a place in the North American Olympic trials in Markham, Ontario, in April. Nobody will clinch an Olympic berth next week.
But at the North American trials, the top American finisher can earn an Olympic berth.
The U.S. is also in position to earn a spot in the Olympic women’s team tournament, determined in May, which would mean that the top two U.S. finishers at the North American trials would make the Olympic team, with the second American competing in the team event only in Rio.
One U.S. woman has already qualified for Rio, Jennifer Wu, by winning the 2015 Pan American Games. Wu is 17 years younger than Wang.
“If you think about age, you cannot do it,” said Wang, who is attempting to become the oldest U.S. Olympic women’s table tennis player. “I don’t think about it that way.”
Missing from the Olympic trials is 2012 Olympian Ariel Hsing, who retired after making the round of 32 in London as the best-placed of three U.S. singles players.
Jimmy Butler, a 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympian who retired in 1998 due to a debilitating muscle condition, came back in 2012 and made the 2015 Pan American Games team. Butler, 44, also retired and will not compete at trials.