I made it onto the Olympic team!
When I was 8, I wrote down, "I want to go to the Olympics" on a little piece of paper that I rolled up, wrapped with a string and placed in a pretty box smaller than my palm. I haven't dared open that box since. I feared if I did, my wish wouldn't come true. From that moment, I dedicated myself to achieving that dream, which meant I had to give up a lot of things, including hanging out with friends, eating Nutella and attending some school functions, like formal dances, to practice and to compete in tournaments around the globe.
All the hard work paid off on April 20 when I made the Olympic team on the first day of the three-day continental trials in Cary, N.C. I'll admit, I had a bit of a rocky start. My nerves, which you know are my biggest problem, were especially high during the two practice days before the event. Thankfully, my parents are experts at keeping me calm by now. They kept telling me, "This is not your last chance, but your first chance to make the Olympic team. There's always 2016 and 2020." They're right! I'm only 16. There's plenty of time. I also appreciated that they reiterated our family motto -- "It's about the process, not the results" -- and assured me they would never be upset if I lost. I truly believe that.
I went into my first match against Canadian Sara Yuen, 24, with a clear head, but a part of me felt somewhat anxious, and I held back. I had never played against Yuen before, but I knew she had an interesting style thanks to her unique pips (the pimpled rubber on the paddle). My rubber is smooth, so I can easily put spin on the ball. Hers, however, are bumpy, which allows her to return the ball with no spin or a reverse spin. I'm not used to this style, so I played pretty conservatively, going for fewer shots than normal. Honestly, I don't think I played very well, which was scary; it's a rough way to kick off a very important tournament. Still, I managed to win 4-1. Afterward, my mom gave me the best advice, "This is your shot, Ariel. Just go for it next time and leave here with no regrets."
So the next match, I decided to really let go and it was a great game. I played against my teammate and best friend, Erica Wu. I went for all my shots and fought hard for every point. I won 4-0. Erica has great sportsmanship and was gracious and happy for me. Plus, she ended up making the Olympic team herself the next day. And as soon as her spot was secure, I said, "So I guess we're going to see Les Mis?" At last year's world championships, she was obsessed with the musical, and she swore to me then, "Ariel, if we make the Olympic team, we're going to see 'Les Miserables' at a London theater."
But back to Day 1. I had one more match to play to make the Olympic team. My final opponent was Canadian veteran Chris Xu, 42. She's a real chopper, which means she steps far away from the table and when you attack, she defends. When you loop it with top spin, she hits it back with under-spin. That's the only way she gets her points. When I was younger, I was infamous for struggling against choppers. I would get so impatient that I would go for the shot way too early. The chopper sees your frustration and sends you seemingly easy balls that turn out to be not easy at all. You start to lose confidence and miss shots, and that's when the chopper kills you.
I had watched Chris use that strategy to take down my other teammate, Lily Zhang, earlier in the day. Chris is such an amazing defender. I already knew she was good, but watching her beat Lily opened my eyes. Beating her would not be easy. It didn't help that I had the added pressure of attempting to even the score with the Canadian team, which already had one athlete on the Olympic roster (Zhang Mo automatically qualified after she won last year's Pan American championships). If Chris beat me, there would be only one spot left for an American to claim. But if I won, I would get to go to London with a teammate. There's an added bonus: The first country to win two of the singles spots gets to bring a third teammate. So winning meant I could help two of my teammates -- Erica, Lily or Judy -- go to the Games. Which is why I could hear the three of them cheering loudly, "Come on, Ariel!" from the stands as I played against Chris.
All I had to do was be the first to win four games. I got out to a 1-0 lead, but then the momentum shifted, and Chris dominated the next two games. I evened the score in the fourth game, after the fifth game, I was up 3-2. I had one more to win. At that moment, I told myself not to think about the score. I just had to play one point at a time. When the audience went crazy, stomping their feet and rooting for me, I had an inkling it might be match point, but I had stopped keeping score maybe 5 or 6 points before, so I wasn't 100 percent sure. I played the point and WON. But before I started jumping up and down, I checked the scoreboard -- how embarrassing would it be if I screamed and the match wasn't over?
When I realized I had indeed won, I started to cry. I couldn't believe I'd made it. It was such an amazing moment. My parents and coaches rushed out to hug me -- they were crying, too. I felt so happy, relieved, lucky and thankful. That night, at my celebration dinner, I was so excited I lost my appetite. But then dessert came out -- a Nutella skillet cookie -- and I got hungry after all. My dad, too, indulged in some ice cream, which he had given up to keep me company in all my sacrifices.
I got to relax the rest of the tournament, except for when Lily played Chris again on the second day. When I'm really nervous for someone, I can't really cheer. I just sit, frozen. When people in the stands started chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A," my heartbeat followed the same tempo. It was a tough match. During the seventh game, Lily was down 6-4, and then out of nowhere, she won seven points in a row, securing both her spot and Erica's for London!
Back home in California, a few days later, I took the week off as a reward and realized the junior and senior prom was coming up Saturday. I mentioned it casually to my dad, who asked me why I wasn't going. I thought about it. Typically, I would be in practice or competing, so I'd have to miss big dances. But now that the Olympic qualifying is over, I'm technically free until the SATs in June and the Summer Games in July.
So I decided to go (with a group of friends, not a date), and knew I had to go dress shopping immediately. After all, my friends had bought theirs two months ago. I tried on about 30 dresses in five different stores over the course of three hours. I eventually found "the one," but the store had to ship me my correct size, and it wasn't scheduled to arrive until the day before the prom, which cut it very close. But I didn't care. I knew I was on my way to my first school dance -- and my first Olympics -- with friends.