Will Puerto Rico's Adriana Diaz make table tennis 'a thing' in North America?
Table tennis, or tenis de mesa, brings celebration, camaraderie and competition to the Diaz family. The sport is a familia affair.
Four-year-old Adriana Diaz took to the blade on a table her father, Bladimir -- a full-time table tennis coach -- set up in their home. She was following in the footsteps of her dad and mother -- Marangely, an attorney -- who both played competitively. Adriana's three sisters -- Melanie, Gabriela and Fabiola -- play the sport as well.
Adriana excelled right away, owning game after game, year after year. By the time Adriana was 16 in 2016, she had become the first Puerto Rican female table tennis player to qualify for the Olympic Games. In Rio, she defeated Nigeria's Olufunke Oshonaike 4-2 in the preliminary round before losing to France's Li Xue 0-4 in the second round.
"I tried to play with dolls -- but, I've always been a sporty girl," Adriana says in a phone interview. "I knew that table tennis was for me. It was fun, and I was very good at it."
With her Zhang Jike Super ZLC blade in hand, Adriana, who is now 18, rose to 33rd in the International Table Tennis Federation (ITFF) women's world rankings. She is the game's rising star and her parents' dream deferred.
She credits her success to her family. "My sister Melanie (current ITFF ranking is 136) was always the best player," says Adriana. "I wanted to be like her so much. She taught me how to move and mental strength. And my dad, as well as the rest of my family, always told me I was good and encouraged me to keep playing."
Adriana grew up in Utuado -- located in the central mountainous region of the island -- where table tennis is widely understood to be a hobby rather than a sport. Adriana hopes to shift that perception: "People in Puerto Rico are starting to watch the sport now. I think my sisters and I, among other players, are making people interested."
When Adriana steps up to the net, blade facing forward, it's just her and her opponent. Her family helped her get there, but they can't guide her hands. Recalling her first international match in the Dominican Republic at the age of 6, in an under-11 grouping, she says: "I was nervous." But now she's competing against women more than a decade older than her.
Most of the time, I feel [my opponents] are more scared than me.Adriana Diaz
At the 2018 Pan American Championships in Santiago, Chile, in November, Adriana met across the net from Zhang Mo, a 29-year-old Chinese-born player who represents Canada. Zhang has been ranked as high as 21 in the world. Adriana didn't let Zhang's ranking, experience and age (or anyone else's) intimidate her.
"Most of the time, I feel [my opponents] are more scared than me. They were big and I was small -- but, maybe they're afraid," says Adrianna. "I take advantage of that. I put in so much effort. I think they ... think, 'Oh, this girl!'"
Her father called Adriana's Pan Am Championships performance "spectacular" in an interview with El Nuevo Día. "[She competed against] some of the best players on the continent. And not only from the continent, but they are players who have results worldwide," he said (quote has been translated from Spanish). Adriana retained her women's singles title, reserving the top spot on the winner's podium.
To reach that level of greatness at such a young age takes commitment. Adriana practices six days a week, twice per day. She also supplements her practice with weight training, yoga and running.
"Yoga helps me calm down and get focused. Then I'll do dumbbells and running for cardio -- my trainer helps," says Adriana. Her life is regimented because she has long-term goals for her game.
"If I practice and train hard, maybe I can be top five in the world."
Table tennis isn't exactly a prominent sport, especially in Puerto Rico. Not yet, at least. While managing her school work and practice, Adriana has had to deal with securing sponsorship. Luckily, singer and rapper Daddy Yankee has previously stepped in.
According to Metro PR, the reggaetón star sponsored the flights for Adriana and her sister Melanie (along with their coach's airfare) so they could compete in the Table Tennis Open in Sweden and Austria last year. Typically, the Olympic Committee of Puerto Rico would pay for athletes to compete in these tournaments, but given the debt crisis that has devastated the island, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the organization was unable to fund their flights.
"Puerto Rico doesn't have much money," says Adriana. "Daddy Yankee stepped in and helped. It was such an honor."
When reflecting on the damage Maria brought to the shores of Puerto Rico, Adriana is somber. This is now a part of her story. She was competing in Colombia when the Category 4 storm made landfall in September 2017. Electricity was out. Phone lines were down. It was hard to communicate with her family.
"Utuado, [where my family still resides], was hit pretty bad," says Adriana. "When I got home, two months later, people needed help. Clothes and supplies. I donated and asked others to do the same."
The responsibility of being one of table tennis' brightest rising star, managing practices, homeschooling, familial obligations and the growing pains of being a teenager rests on Adriana's shoulders. Though she attempts to create a "normal" existence. She plays video games; Super Smash Bros. is one of her favorites. Adriana makes time for friends in between training and competitions. And she's thinking about pursuing air, space or mechanical engineering in the future.
She owns several goals and winning gold on the world's stage is one of them. "Like every athlete, I want to medal at the Olympics. If I stay focused -- I'll get there."
Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey is a senior editor at espnW. Follow her on Twitter @ericka_editor