Teens battle for table tennis bids

Lily Zhang, 15, Erica Wu, 15, and Ariel Hsing, 16, each have a decent shot to qualify for the 2012 Olympics during the North American Olympic Trials on April 20-22 in Cary, N.C. Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Erica Wu dreams every once in a while of getting a high five while she walks down the hallways of the Westridge School (Pasadena, Calif.). After all, it's a fitting and traditional tribute for a high school athlete at the top of her game.

But Wu, who turns 16 in May, is a table tennis player, and truth be told, most of the 80 students in her grade at the all-girls school don't realize that she's one of the best players in the nation. Sure, they know she misses school for tournaments, but a lot of kids go out of town for extracurricular activities.

Yet few are on the same level as Wu, who has a shot at qualifying for the 2012 Olympics during the North American Olympic Trials on April 20-22 in Cary, N.C.

"Part of it is because no one really thinks about table tennis as a sport," said Wu, who got hooked after winning second place at a local tournament at the age of 9. "They can't imagine what it's like at the top level unless they've seen it before. I'm actually hosting a demo in a few weeks, because I want them to see what it's really like."

Wu is not the only elite teenage player. She'll be joined by two good friends -- Ariel Hsing, 16, of Valley Christian (San Jose, Calif.), and Lily Zhang, 15, of Palo Alto (Calif.) -- as she faces off against rival players from Canada at the North American Trials.

The tournament is quirky, for sure. It's really two mini-tournaments pitting four American qualifiers (the three teenagers and 43-year-old Olympic veteran Gao Jun) against four Canadians for the right to earn a pair of singles spots in London. But the team that wins two spots gets to bring a third player for the Olympic team competition.

Adding another variable to the mix, Canada's top female player, Zhang Mo, already earned a berth in London by virtue of her Pan-Am Games championship in the fall and will not be playing in Cary. On paper, Team USA has a good chance of sending three players to London. All the Americans are ranked higher than the Canadian players.

If Canada wins a spot this weekend, though, only the top American player will earn a spot on Team USA. The final Olympic spot could come down to a match between any two among Wu, Zhang and Hsing.

"It's sort of tough to think about [that scenario]," said Wu. "I'm good friends with Ariel and Lily. But when the time comes, I'm going to fight and try my best."

Wu had been seen recently as the third-best player among the three teenagers, but she surprised even herself by beating Hsing for the first time at the round-robin U.S. Trials event in early February. It was a milestone moment that's provided a boost these past two months.

"It's been a mental thing. You've never beaten this person before, and at the last moment, you kind of choke," Wu said. "So beating Ariel was sort of a way to reassure myself, 'OK, you can do this.' I've beaten Ariel; she's a national champion. Sometimes if you beat someone you've never beaten, it opens you up to the possibility that you could go further than before."

The other girls are busy improving too. The trio was joined by Gao and Judy Hugh at the world championship tournament in Germany in late March. The Americans finished 23rd out of 24 teams but gained valuable experience playing against the Chinese team in the round robin.

"The Chinese player I played was the world No. 2," said Hsing, who lost a quick 3-0 match to Guo Yan. "She's older than we are and plays at such a high level. She trains so much and was so experienced. I was down 6-0 in the first before I knew it."

But she was asked to practice after the match, which was flattering.

"We have to improve our skills and also work on being better people," Hsing said. "She was so humble."

Hsing was being humble as well. She was the only American other than Gao to win a match at the tournament.

The trio tries to be normal teenagers, but their travel and training often make that difficult. Zhang says table tennis has eaten into the time she might have spent getting her learner's permit. Wu had to postpone seeing the hit movie "The Hunger Games" until after she returned from the world championships.

"I actually already had my ticket for the midnight show before I realized we were leaving on March 22 and it opened on March 23," said Wu. "But I watched it the day after we came back. Sometimes, when I'm doing a lot of training and I'm running, I'm thinking 'OK, Katniss [Everdeen, the lead character in the movie] could do this.' It helps me get through practice sometimes."

Each player is comfortable with the role table tennis plays in her life. Yes, there's homework on the road and tests to be made up when they get home, but Wu made it clear that while she, Zhang and Hsing might like to have four more years of experience, table tennis could have a different priority for them at age 19 or 20.

"This timing for me is perfect, because I'm in 10th grade right now," she said. "So once I get to 11th and 12th grade, I'll be taking the SATs and thinking about college. I won't have that much time to focus on training."

She'll have plenty of time to earn that high five between now and then.