The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by Madeleine Brand

Arcadia teenager Erica Wu dreams of Olympic qualification

Erica Wu practices table tennis with an opponent at the Gao Jun Table Tennis Club in El Monte, Calif. Wu, a high school student at Westridge School in Pasadena is hoping to make it to the Olympics with the U.S. table tennis team.
Erica Wu practices table tennis with an opponent at the Gao Jun Table Tennis Club in El Monte, Calif. Wu, a high school student at Westridge School in Pasadena is hoping to make it to the Olympics with the U.S. table tennis team.
Josie Huang/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 3.0MB

Erica Wu, a 15-year-old high school student, has strong preferences. She likes to wear bangs and a ponytail, is absolutely obsessed with “The Hunger Games” and hates soggy cereal.

But, one passion trumps all else.

“I love table tennis,” she says. Not only does she love the sport, she’s hoping her skills will take her all the way to the Olympics. "Yeah, I really want to go."

Don't believe her? One listen to her consistent, powerful strokes and carefully-placed shots will convince you that she definitely has a shot at the big games. And this kind of performance takes a lot of work.

“I usually practice from 4:00 to 5:30 at the table. And then from 5:30 to 6:00, serves. And then from 6:00 to 6:20, jump-roping, weightlifting, footwork,” explains Wu. “And then after that, I would go sprinting two laps."

Wu belongs to a new wave of U.S.-born teens who are upending the national table tennis scene. For decades, the top U.S. players were originally from China, where table tennis earns fanfare comparable to the NFL in the U.S.

But Wu says more American kids are interested in the game than ever before.

"A lot of us are second-generation Asian Americans and our parents in China or in Taiwan or in the Asian countries have had a lot of exposure to table tennis, so when they come here it's one of the sports on their mind that they might want us to try,” says Wu.

In fact, all four of the players competing for a spot on the U.S. women's team are children of Asian immigrants. Wu is the daughter of actuaries from Taiwan, their only child.

"When she plays, she's fast,” says Johan Pao, Wu’s mother. "But she does everything is so slow. If she can finish a dinner in 30 minutes, I'll be happy.”

Pao's smile betrays her pride in Erica. She and her husband have poured tens of thousands of dollars into equipment, travel and summer training camps in China and Taiwan. About $3,000-a-month goes to a coach and a live-in practice partner from China.

"They stay for like two to three months and then they go. We try to get different people. But so far we have had three,” says Pao.

Earlier this week, Erica worked with one of her Chinese practice partners at the Gao Jun Table Tennis Club in El Monte. It's a refurbished warehouse with fluorescent lights and posters of Chinese table tennis stars taped to the walls. Jay Yuan, 21, gives Wu tips on her returns, as half-a-dozen other games go on.

According to Table Tennis magazine editor Steve Hopkins, clubs like this are helping to promote the sport and foster talent.

"There are large clubs now that weren't in existence in the early and mid-80s,” he says. "And these folks are mostly coming out of those hotbed areas where there are lots of players." Places with large Asian populations, such as Southern California, the Bay Area and Mid-Atlantic states.

Just as these young women are coming up through the ranks, top Chinese players are retiring or slowing down. Jun Gao, who's represented both China and the U.S. in the Olympics, decided not to compete this year.

Gao runs the club where Erica practices, and hopes the best for the younger athletes. But she questions whether homegrown American talent can beat international players who've been training in special schools since early childhood.

"I don't think the U.S. will make as good result as before,” says Gao. “Right now, all these kids – they were born here, they grew up here, they train here, so the level compared to the world, we're pretty low."

Erica is unfazed by the odds. She just wants to play.

"I shout. I smash balls and I have to fight for every point, and so it's really nice to have that feeling of 'I'm trying to beat you, 'I know you're trying to beat me, let's see who wins,'” says Wu.

Her parents, her practice partner and coach will all be in the stands rooting for her. But her mom says win or not at trials, she's decided Erica has to do more chores when they get home.