U.S.’ best-ever Olympic table tennis player unretires, enters Olympic trials

Wang Chen
Courtesy Wang Chen

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.

MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Rio Olympics

Diana Taurasi says 2024 Paris Olympics ‘on my radar’

Diana Taurasi

Diana Taurasi said immediately after winning her fifth Olympic gold medal in Tokyo that she might try for a record sixth in Paris.

It’s still on her mind 17 months out of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It’s something that it’s on my radar,” Taurasi told The Associated Press in a phone interview Tuesday after the first day of a USA Basketball training camp in Minnesota, her first national team activity since Tokyo. “I’m still competitive, still driven, still want to play, I still love being a part of USA Basketball.”

Taurasi will be 42 at the time of the Paris Games — older than any previous Olympic basketball player — but said if she’s healthy enough she’d like to give it a go.

“If the opportunity comes to play and be a part of it, it’s something I’ve always taken a lot of pride in,” said Taurasi, who shares the record of five Olympic basketball gold medals with the retired Sue Bird. “When you get to my age at this point in my career, you just try to win every day. Right now this is a good opportunity to be part of this team moving forward we’ll see what happens.”

She said she would have played at the FIBA World Cup last year in Australia, but had a quad strain that kept her out of the end of the WNBA season.

“I got hurt a little bit before. I had a good conversation with Coach (Cheryl) Reeve and (USA Basketball CEO Jim) Tooley. I felt like I hadn’t played enough basketball to be out there and help,” Taurasi said. “That’s the biggest thing with USA Basketball is being able to help the team win.”

Reeve said Monday that when she succeeded Dawn Staley as head coach a few months after Tokyo, she wasn’t sure whether Taurasi would play for the national team again. That was before her conversation with Taurasi.

“I look forward to having a chance to have her be around and be, as I told her, a great voice,” Reeve said. “Obviously, the competitive fire that she competes with is something that we all do well with.”

In Tokyo, Taurasi started all six games and averaged 18.8 minutes per game, sixth-most on the team (fewer than backup guard Chelsea Gray). Her 5.8 points per game were her fewest in her Olympic career, though she was dealing with a hip injury.

Taurasi is an unrestricted free agent although she is expected to return back to Phoenix where she’s spent her entire career since getting drafted No. 1 overall in 2003.

“Phoenix still has things they need to work out,” the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer said.

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Alexis Pinturault wins world championships combined; American in fourth


France’s Alexis Pinturault won the world Alpine skiing championships combined at his home venue after defending world champion Marco Schwarz blew a lead in the final seconds of his slalom run.

Pinturault, a 31-year-old who hadn’t won a race in nearly two years (the longest drought of his distinguished career), prevailed by one tenth of a second over the Austrian Schwarz in Courchevel, France.

“I hope to enjoy it because it was pretty difficult some months ago,” Pinturault said.

Austrian Raphael Haaser took bronze in an event that combined times from a morning super-G run and an afternoon slalom run, one day after his older sister took bronze in the women’s combined.

River Radamus was fourth, a quarter of a second from becoming the first U.S. man to win an Alpine worlds medal since 2015. Radamus’ best event is the giant slalom, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at worlds.

“It’s nice, but honestly, you don’t come to world championships hoping to get fourth,” Radamus said.

Five skiers finished within 2.98 seconds of the winner in an event that has been dropped from the annual World Cup schedule and is under review to remain on the Olympic program.

ALPINE WORLDS: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Pinturault had the fastest super-G run by six hundredths over Schwarz. Schwarz, a slightly better slalom skier than Pinturault, erased that deficit early in the slalom and had a three tenths lead at the last intermediate split.

He gave it all away about six gates from the finish, slamming on the brakes. Moments later, he crossed the finish line one tenth behind Pinturault, who reacted by pumping his fists in the air.

The Frenchman earned his first race victory since the March 2021 World Cup Finals giant slalom, where he clinched his first World Cup overall title, the biggest annual prize in ski racing. Last season, Pinturault went winless on the World Cup for the first time since he was a teenage rookie in 2011, plus went medal-less at the Olympics.

Pinturault, who grew up in Courchevel and now co-owns the family’s five-star Hotel Annapurna there, had retirement cross his mind in the offseason, according to Eurosport. He skipped a pre-worlds Sunday press conference due to illness.

Nonetheless, Pinturault was on the front page of French newspapers this week, including L’Equipe on Tuesday. In a sports cover story for Le Figaro, Pinturault said that, given the circumstances, it would be almost a “nice surprise” to go for a medal at these worlds.

Olympic champion Johannes Strolz of Austria skied out of the slalom after tying for 29th in the super-G.

Olympic silver and bronze medalists Aleksander Aamodt Kilde of Norway and Jack Crawford of Canada were among the speed specialists who did not start the slalom. They essentially used the event as a training run for Thursday’s super-G.

Worlds continue Wednesday with the women’s super-G, where Mikaela Shiffrin is a medal contender but not the favorite. She can tie the modern-era records for individual world championships gold medals (seven) and total medals (12).

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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