Gao, 3 teens among winners at table tennis trials
CARY, N.C. (AP) Gao Jun insisted all along that she could accept failure at the U.S. Olympic table tennis trials because she never planned to be here anyway.
She rarely lost a set, let alone a match.
The four-time Olympian breezed through the trials, winning three matches Sunday to finish 11-0 and claim one of four women's berths in the North American Trials.
“I'm happy that I won all of the matches, but still, for me, no big deal,” Gao said.
The other women's spots went to teenagers who each finished 9-2: 16-year-old Ariel Hsing, 15-year-old Lily Zhang and 15-year-old Erica Wu. Michael Landers (9-2), Barney Reed (8-3), Timothy Wang (8-3) and Adam Hugh (8-3) claimed the four men's spots.
Those eight will return to Cary for the continental trials in April, with the top three men and two women advancing to the Olympics.
“I've been dreaming about this moment for a really long time,” Wu said. “But I know that this is not the final stage.”
Gao, 43, won the silver medal in doubles playing for her native China in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, then immigrated to the U.S. a few years later and played three times for the Americans in the Olympics. Each time, she claimed automatic spots in the games with a top-20 world ranking.
That wasn't the case this year, and she wasn't even sure she was going to play the trials because of her commitments to coaching and operating a table tennis club in El Monte, Calif. She didn't decide to come to Cary until the last minute.
But once she got here, she quickly established herself as the best women's player in the field. She lost only seven sets all weekend, and no player seeded lower than fifth claimed a set against her.
“The girls, they're good,” Gao said. “They're still young.”
The fourth women's spot came down to a winner-take-all match between one of Gao's practice partners - No. 5 seeded Wu, who lists Gao as one of her coaches - and fourth-seeded Judy Hugh. Wu claimed a five-set victory that she finished by taking the final 10 points.
“It was very nerve-racking,” Wu said. “I know both of us were really nervous, and when we walked up, our hands were kind of shaking. I just told myself that both of us are nervous, I'm not the only one feeling the pressure, and to try my best to relax. It was really hard, but it got better as the match went on.”
The men's field was cloudy from start to finish, with No. 1 seed Yiyong Fan withdrawing roughly an hour before his first match Sunday. That gave three players - Adam Hugh, Reed and Peter Li - automatic wins by forfeit.
“I think it's safe to say we're all a little disappointed, because if he would have played, then it would have changed the whole tournament completely,” Wang said.
Instead, it helped create a logjam in which three men entered their final match at 8-2, two others were at 7-3 and a sixth was at 6-4. Wang, who began the day well off the pace at 5-3, went 3-0 Sunday to play his way in, capping things with a six-set victory over Hugh.
“There was so much pressure. I knew that if I lost that match, I wouldn't have made it,” Wang said. “So I just had to give it my all and just go for it.”
That left four men's players at 8-3. Reed claimed second place because he was 3-0 against the other three. Wang and Hugh advanced via the tiebreaker - the percentage of match wins against the others - and Li was left out.
“It was kind of like, if I won (the last match), Timothy would have made the team and if I had lost, Peter would have made the team and Tim would have been out,” Landers said. “Even though I'm really disappointed to have basically disqualified Peter, I did the best I could and I tried not to think about it too much, and that's what happens.”
In his 10th match, Adam Hugh outlasted Han Xiao in a seven-set marathon during which the emotional Hugh jumped, screamed and pumped his left fist after most of his points. Hugh's victory was sealed when Xiao sailed his final return over the table.
A few minutes later, on that very same table, it was time for his younger sister's win-and-you're-in match - and he raced in during her second set to catch the end.
“It was definitely really tough mentally, because the two of us have been training the last year and a half to make the team,” Adam Hugh said. “If anyone's got my back in this world, it's my sister. So seeing her fall like that was really hard for both of us, but it was good of her to tell me to not worry about her and just to focus on my next match.”