No country in the world has won more Olympic medals than the United States, but none of America’s thousands of medals have ever come in table tennis.
Shigang Yang hopes that the first will come from one of the athletes trained in his facility outside Atlanta.
“Each Olympic games is a four-year cycle so they have to start to prepare four years before,” Yang said.
Yang took over the academy in 2009 and its been a community cornerstone ever since.
“This is a lifetime sport,” Yang said. “It’s good for your health. We have the youngest age at five and the oldest that come here are 80.”
A good table tennis volley has a familiar ring to it; one that the kids at the Atlanta International Table Tennis Academy have heard since they were young.
“I was nine years old when I first started,” said academy student Sabrina Zhu.
“I started playing when I was about eight years old,” concurred fellow student Ethan Ruan.
At a club that has produced two Olympians – Yijun Feng, who competed for Team USA in 2016 and Jeremy Hazin, who just represented Team Canada in Tokyo – everyone is buzzing about the generation after them.
“I started playing table tennis and it wasn’t anything serious but after two or three years, though, my coach really started pushing me,” said student Daniel Ng
Next thing you know, Ng is representing America in tournaments around the world, as are his friends Zhu, Ruan and Andrew Yang.
“I have trained with people who are on the US team or have been on the US team or on the Olympic team,” said Zhu. “Its been a really great opportunity for me because I’ve learned a lot from them and seeing how they train every day really motivates me to keep training as well.”
The best thing is that this fantastic foursome gets to do it all together.
“Not only is the training great and competitive and you get to practice and become better, but it’s also great because you get to share moments with your friends and eating out and bonding,” Ruan said.
“Whenever I enter the club, I always love seeing everyone so excited about table tennis,” Zhu said.
These youngsters are still early on the Olympic road; a trek that can get much tougher than what they’ve experienced so far, should they choose to take it.
“The Olympic players are very focused on this sport,” Yang said. “They will train very hard, maybe five or six hours a day. Before the Olympic games, they are ready to focus and give up other things.”
Andrew Yang knows this firsthand. He’s Shigang’s son and made a U.S. National Team at just ten years old.
“It’s basically exactly like passing on the torch,” Andrew said. “It’s like taking on his career and legacy.”
It’s a legacy shared with his lifelong friends at the academy.
“Seeing how passionate people are about improving themselves and how dedicated they are to just keep training and keep trying their best, that really inspires to keep playing every day and put my best foot forward as well,” Zhu said.