With an effortless flick of the wrist and a bob of her ponytailed head, Ariel Hsing sends a bullet of a forehand past my desperate stab of a return shot and into the nether regions of a Trump Tower ballroom. When I turn back to the table, she shoots me a sheepish smile, like she's slightly ashamed at eviscerating a journalist in her own sport.
That sums up the tao of America's best table tennis player—exceedingly polite yet extraordinarily skilled.
At only 16 years old, Hsing is poised to become a big star in a sport that's the equivalent of the NFL in China ("it's like the Super Bowl over there," one spokesman said) but confined mostly to rec room basements and dorm hall lounges in America.
She's been known for befriending and besting richy-rich pals Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as a 9-year old ("Uncle Warren" and "Uncle Bill," as she calls them), but now she's a three-time women's national champion and perhaps America's best chance at ever winning an Olympic medal in the sport.
During this summer's London Games, the native of San Jose, Calif., exceeded expectations with a thrilling second-round victory over Luxembourg's Ni Xia Lian. In the next round, she nearly knocked off second-seeded Li Xiaoxia before succumbing in six games.
"My goal was to just win my first match. But I hung in there and won a couple and it was really amazing," she said.
What's also amazing is how a teenage girl who also is busy being a normal high school student and studying for SATs can balance a rigorous training regimen and her new job as table tennis's new ambassador to America. She just signed an endorsement deal with Chicago-based company Killerspin, and visited downtown this week along with several top Chinese national players for an exhibition during the Chicago International Table Tennis Festival.
"I'm really happy, it's great to be able to share doing what I love and that's table tennis. I'm hoping to spread the word in Chicago a bit," she said.
Part of spreading the word meant facing me in a friendly match Thursday, where I got to see her mad paddle skills firsthand. I've played plenty of pingpong in my time—mostly at a table stuffed in a friend's sunroom and the back room of a Ukrainian Village bar—but I was baffled by Hsing's arsenal of slicing spin shots and powerful slams. I managed to score three points to her 21, but it felt like she was playing at only half speed.
"Sorry," she squeaked as she muscled another winner over the net.
Kill 'em with kindness, Ariel.
Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.
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