Gao Jun was born Jan. 25, 1969 in Baoding, Hebei, China (not far from Beijing). Her father introduced her to table tennis when she was five and he was serious enough to see that she had a coach. This led to her going off to an athletic boarding school for potential professionals. By age 11 she and her family were honored that she’d been chosen a member of the Hebei Province Team. Over the next several years she did so well in junior tournaments that at 17 she was accepted as a member of the Chinese National Team. For her, being a Student of the Game could be a 10-hour-a-day job. To be better prepared she’d carry round a notebook and diligently record what she learned about her matches and herself.
Playing now internationally, she had successes at the Finnish, Italian and Romanian Opens. In 1989 at the Dortmund, Germany World’s, though she wasn’t a member of China’s winning team, she was a Women’s and Mixed Doubles semifinalist. More successes, too, in Russia and Hungary. In 1990, she made her U.S. Open debut—came first in the Team’s and the Women’s and Mixed Doubles, and was a semifinalist in the Singles, losing to her Doubles partner Liu Wei. Also, paired with Deng Yaping, China’s dominant player in the first half of the ‘90’s, she won the Women’s Doubles at the Yugoslav and French Opens. All of which means that by this time she’d been well tested, had proved tried and true.
In 1991, she was among the favored few representing China in the Team event at the Chiba, Japan World’s, and was picked by Coach Zhang Xielin to play in the final against Korea. And quite a tie it was. Historic. The two Koreas had gotten together to field what the North Koreans called a “unified” team and the South Koreans called a “single” team. Ah, Sports and its ever permeating Politics. At an interview I had with Jun at our 2008 U.S. Open, she said she’d let her team down in that 1991 Team final, had lost both singles matches—to Yu Son Bok and Hyun Jung Hwa, World Champion in 1993—thus allowing the “Korean” team to win the world title. It would be the only time in a 35-year span—from 1975 to the present—that the Chinese would lose the Corbillon Cup.
To tell the truth, though, I think China and Gao got over this loss to the politically-minded Koreans rather quickly. Deng Yaping, though winning the doubles with Gao in this tie, lost a singles match herself, and 1989 World Champion Qiao Hong didn’t even play in the tie. Certainly there were compensations for Deng and Gao. Deng would go on to win the first of her three World’s Singles, and 22-year-old Gao, partnered by Chen Zihe, would defeat Deng and Qiao to take the Women’s Doubles.
Jun told me that prior to this Doubles final she and Chen had never beaten, not even in practice, this Defending World Women’s Doubles team of Qiao and Deng. So she didn’t think they had a chance of winning. But a friend of Chen’s, trying to give them encouragement the night before the match, suggested that they practice holding the Championship trophy. So they did—sort of. They held up pillows—pretended and prayed And sure enough, the win held so dear to their hearts miraculously happened. No, Gao emphasized, the result wasn’t “fixed”….though admittedly she’d seen such things happen.
The following year at the Olympics these same two teams were in the final again. But this time Deng and Qiao raised the triumphant torch of flowers.
Jun’s two losses in the 1991 Team’s to North Korea didn’t keep her off the winning 1993 China team, and rightly so, for she was a semifinalist in the Singles—which helped her to a World #3 ranking. Much of her success at this time she owed to her last three coaches—Zhang Xielin (during her 17-20 years), Zhang Li (her 20-22 years), and Hui Jun (her 22-24 years.). Not surprisingly someone once told Gao she played like Zhang Li, 1975/1977 World runner-up to the North Korean political winner Pak Yung Sun. “Yeah, I did,” Gao told me—“except Zhang moved much faster.” Jun learned early that this isn’t “a sport that you can simply rely on power and speed to win. You need a lot of control, strategies, and skillful touches too.” This she repeatedly demonstrates, for she’s a penhold, short-pips blocker specializing in controlling placements and forehand follows.
After retiring from the Chinese National Team, Gao, in Jan., 1994, came to the U.S. to live in Gaithersburg, Md. Relieved of all the pressure she’d felt as a world-class player for the #1 world-class team, she could begin to have some fun—read, watch TV, sing, shop, see movies, and go swimming. It didn’t bother her too much that on coming to the States she’d misplaced the racket blade she’d used as a member of the Chinese National Team because she wasn’t sure she’d ever play table tennis again. But Martin/Kilpatrick’s Butterfly Co. wanted to sponsor her (good move, Bowies) and gave her the choice of a selection of blades.
In a Mar. 8, 1994 interview, Jun told Dave Sakai, “If I did play for the United States…I couldn’t even consider getting a medal at the World’s or Olympics. The level of play all over the world is going up…. At 25 I’m already old. The time I would have to put into training is almost impossible to do in the United States. There are also great financial problems.…” In China, she said, she used to practice each day for hours—and with a good practice partner. “Best I can do in the U.S.,” she said, “is maintain my level, I couldn’t improve any more.”
Fourteen years later I asked her, “Do you indulge yourself in dreaming about something you want but don’t think you’ll get?” “Yes,” she said, “a Gold Medal at the Olympics.”
How is it, then, that from an old 25 in one January she’d come to be a young 40 in another?
Because what she found impossible to do in the U.S., she was able to do, with the cooperation of her Butterfly sponsor, by going back to her China roots and by relentlessly playing the Pro circuit in Europe and Asia. Fewer distractions that way, better results. Not that during her 1996-2004 years she neglected her adopted home country’s National Championships. In Women’s Singles, Women’s Doubles, and Mixed Doubles, out of 23 such events she as a U.S. citizen entered, know how many she won? Yep, you guessed it—all 23. In the middle of this win streak, her USATT rating was 2669.
Gao claims she’s not a special person, is really quite normal. And I guess her mother agrees, for she says her daughter can’t live “without electricity”—that means TV, phone, and internet. But others might easier associate Jun with the current, the juice, needed for successful competition—she can’t live without that. Gao says she isn’t a planner, she focuses on the moment. “If you can’t concentrate on the here and now, you have no future,” she says—which certainly sounds like something her parents and coaches had drilled into her.
1999 was a good year for Gao. At the Pan-Am Games she beat Canada’s Geng Lijuan. Geng, partnered by that same Hui Jun who’d be Gao’s coach, had won the 1987 World Mixed Doubles. Then she beat Geng again, 23-21 in the fifth, to win the North American Championship. At the U.S. Open that year, she finally had a win over Chen Jing, the 1988 Olympic Champion and 1993 World runner-up, but she lost the final to Ni Xialian, 1982 European Champion and ’83 World Mixed Doubles Champion. However, the loss did demonstrate what Jun had learned long ago—that is, never give up. In the final, she was down 2-0 to Ni and down. 9-0 in the 3rd, then down 20-15 match point, then deuced it. Never mind she eventually lost that game, that match. Five years later she’d win the 2008 U.S. Open over Ni, and this time, with her exceptional ball control and clever change-of-pace play, she had no trouble reading the spin from Ni’s two-sided racket and reacting accordingly.
Also in 1999, Gao accompanied a number of Juniors to Taiwan. Among them was Michelle Do, whom Gao would win back-to-back U.S. Closed Women’s Doubles with. Jun likes to coach Juniors, likes to see a kid with smarts incorporate imaginative changes in his/her play, and fight hard to win. At the 2008 U.S. Olympic Tryouts, she enjoyed playing an exhibition with Ariel Hsing who this year at age 13 was a member of our U.S. World Team.
“For some people,” says Gao, “it’s hard to listen to a coach. You understand what he/she says to do, but you don’t feel comfortable doing it. It’s you who has to feel the ball. As you’re learning, you need a coach to help you build fundamentals and strategy. But then after you’ve developed a good game, you need a coach to ask you, ‘What do you need to improve your technique?’ The best coach urges you to be independent. You engage in a constant process of what works, what doesn’t.”
In July, 1997, a World Ranking of #24 was resurrected for Gao. Thereafter she worked hard to improve on that until in 2005, on reaching World #10, she was given a $10,000 incentive bonus from the USATT.
Although in the 2000 Olympics Gao lost to South Korea’s World #9 Ryu Ji Hae, she at least won USA distinction by advancing to the main draw, AND she and Olympic teammate Michelle Do got their picture taken with Bill Gates.
By 2002, Gao was training and competing in China with her East China University Club (eventually she’d receive a degree in Economic Trade) and playing in the China Super League. Did it help? Uh-huh. At the Pro Tour German Open, for example, Jun played a great, though losing, seven-game match against China’s GuoYue, one day to become World Champion.
In 2003, Gao reached the quarter’s of the World’s—on her way she downed Germany’s Elke Wosik, as well as two defensive stars, Russia’s Svetlana Ganina and South Korea’s Kim Kyung Ah. (Don’t play defenders too aggressively, Jun says, give them slow topspins while waiting for a chance to drop or kill.) Jun then went on to win the Pan-Am Singles again, 11-7 in the seventh, from the Dominican Republic’s transplanted Chinese, Wu Xue. Gao also won the Women’s Doubles with Olympic Bronze holder Jasna Reed.
In 2004 Jun got to the quarter’s of the Korean Open, forcing the foremost player of her day, World and Olympic Champion Zhang Yining, into the seventh before losing. Also, in the Doubles, Gao and Wosik reached the final before falling to the preeminent Chinese, Zhang and Wang Nan. Another Olympics for Jun—she was the only USA qualifier—but was beaten by rising Japanese star Ai Fukuhara. At the Hong Kong World Cup, Jun had enviable wins over Tamara Boros, World #8, and Wang Nan, the reigning World Champion.
Then, back in the U.S., there was good news and bad news. Gao was again North American Champion, again U.S. Closed Champion—over her winning Women’s Doubles partners and upcoming Olympic teammates Tawny Banh and Jasna Reed, and was named Athlete of the Year. But at the U.S. Open she slipped and fell, gashing her kneecap on the corner of the table, and couldn’t compete.
At the 2005 World’s Gao has another good win—over China’s Cao Zhen , 11-8 in the seventh. At the June Chinese Taipei tournament, she becomes the first US player to win a Singles title at an ITTF Pro Tour event—defeats Singapore’s former Sportswoman of the Year Li Jia Wei, the 2004/2005 U.S. Open Champion. She also takes the Doubles with pick-up partner Shen Yanfei (playing for her adoptive country Spain). Their styles are complementary. Gao of course is a righty penholder with excellent short-pips play at the net. Shen is a shakehands lefty with short pips on the forehand and inverted on the backhand; she “spins the ball from the backhand and hits very flat with little spin from the forehand.” “I’m the controller,” says Gao; “she’s the killer.” The new partnership scores again at the 2005 Pro Tour Grand Final—beating the #2 and #3 players in the world, Guo Yue and Guo Yan.
In 2006/2007 she’s playing everywhere—in the Chinese Super League, various European tournaments, the World Cup, the 2006 Pro Tour Grand Tour Finals, and the Pan Am Games where she wins more titles.
Despite her extraordinary successes, Gao says she’s often afraid of opponents, afraid she might lose to them. Especially here in the U.S. before her home fans. (She cited the North American Championships where she was down 1-0 and 8-4 in the second before beating Canada’s 2006 U.S. Open Champ Zhang Mo.) So, hey, maybe she is a normal person after all? Nope. Because in the next breath she says, “If I’m fearful, I just decide to play my best, and not worry about the outcome.” A superstar can decide to play her best—and do it. As for the rest of us….
In the past two decades, we’ve seen a number of U.S. superstars who’ve emigrated from China. But Jun is very mindful of our own native-born Olympians. Todd Sweeris, for example, whom she’d practiced with at her Maryland Club prior to the 2000 Olympics. He’s a model for others, she says—a serious player and a CPA. Others can be like him—have an enriched life.
Regarding more overseas players coming to our shores, Gao would like to see the new ITTF law rescinded—that’s the one barring those over 21 from playing World title events for a new association (there are also lesser but considerable restrictions for those under 21). “It’s not right,” she told me, “for the ITTF to make this blanket decision—it should be left to individual countries’ associations.”
It’s true that when you look at the 2008 World Women’s team—Nan Li, Crystal Huang, Jackie Lee, Wang Chen, and Gao—you see only Chinese faces. And some people are disturbed by that—though not their coach, “Doru” Gheorghe, for many years a Romanian international player and official. “But,” argues Gao, “any awards these players might win won’t go to China, they’ll go to the U.S., long a democratic-minded country.”
I don’t know about China, but tonight for sure it’ll be the U.S. Hall of Fame that gives out the awards. So, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our first inductee of the evening—the many-time U.S. Singles and Doubles Champion, and, as a World Champion and Olympian, the greatest of modern-day players to represent our country in international competition—Gao Jun.