The word “prodigy” carries a lot of weight. And for the few who it can actually describe, it’s oftentimes a curse. Itzhak Perlman, the famed violinist and a prodigy himself said, “For every child prodigy you know about, at least 50 potential ones have burned out before you even heard of them.”
But life isn’t rosy, even for those you have actually heard of. They could be like the tennis legend Andre Agassi, pushed by maniacal parents to the breaking point, and have their early passion turned into mental torture. Or they could be like Joshua Waitzkin, the chess player who was beating masters by age 10 and had a movie based on his life before turning 18. The U.S.’s next great chess hope burned out by 23, going on to a career in martial arts instead.
The path for young phenoms seems remarkably predictable: Play long enough to hate the game and ensure a destructive relationship with your career, or wear down completely by the time you reach semi-adulthood. Is there any other way for the young and incredibly gifted?
Ask Lily Zhang, table tennis’ answer to the question.
A good sports story has a memorable introduction to the hero’s sport, and Lily’s is as unforgettable as anyone’s. Her father, Bo Zhang, is a former Stanford math professor, and the Zhang family spent the first eight years of Lily’s life living on campus. The laundry room they used doubled as a rec room, which, of course, housed a ping-pong table. Bo was a recreational player, so he and his wife, Linda Liu, would play with Lily while waiting for their clothes to dry.
“Those were the best times, it was like, ‘Yes! I get to play,’ ” Lily says. “I always wanted to go do laundry — it was something I looked forward to.”
They started playing when Lily was 7, and it was only a matter of months before she was beating her parents. So when a family friend started taking his child to a table tennis club, Lily tagged along too.
“(At the club), a bunch of kids would just stand in a line for a minute and hit a few balls and then get back in line,” Lily says. “It was a fun hobby before that … but once I went to the club and I saw the professional players, I fell in love with the sport.”
By age 10, Lily had entered her first tournament to qualify for the U.S. National Cadets team. And not only was she playing, she was winning with ease. She finished as one of the top four players in the nation and was chosen as a cadet.
Here’s where things get special: The Cadets team is for any players 15 and under. And Lily was 10. So among the hundreds of 14- and 15-year-olds vying for a chance at early table tennis glory, it was the 10-year-old that quickly proved she was head of the class.
Her first taste of her new life came when she was traveling to South Africa for the World Cadets Challenge.
“The tournament venues (in the U.S.) were just community center gyms,” Lily says. “(In South Africa), it was in a real professional venue, with professional table tennis flooring, the tables were high quality. I stepped it up a whole notch after … I started playing five days a week, two hours a day.”
Now how is a 10-year-old supposed to handle the pressure of traveling around the world, playing kids five years older than she was? It seems to be a ridiculous idea on its face.
But maybe that’s just our predisposition: Most of the kids in this situation have been those with unhealthy relationships with the game, such as the prodigies we’re familiar with. Being introduced to the game organically and choosing to pursue it of her own accord saved Lily.
“I don’t think I had nerves,” Lily says. “I was by far the youngest person there, so no one expected much from me. They were just like, ‘That’s a cute little girl.’ There was nothing to be expected of me. It was just like go out there, it’s OK if I lose, and it’s amazing if I win. That was my mindset going into every match.”
A 10-year-old with that sort of perspective is pretty rare, and perhaps it took that unheard-of mentality to maintain Lily’s unheard-of results. She kept creating even larger age gaps between herself and her peers. At 11, she made the under-18 U.S National team. At 12, she made the U.S Women’s National Team.
Women’s. As in grown women.
“My first world championships, I went to Tokyo, all my teammates were 30 and I was only a 12-year-old.”
“My first world championships, I went to Tokyo, all my teammates were 30 and I was only a 12-year-old,” Lily says. “But they took care of me and really walked me through the tournament. It was kind of a motherly role.”
If you ask Lily about what it’s like to travel across the globe (Japan, Spain, Dubai, Qatar, etc.) as a middle schooler accompanied by 30-year-olds, she’ll say it was great, unaware of the implication that the scenario is so absurd there must have either been some sort of slapstick anecdote or team conflict from bringing along a girl a third the age of some players. It seems almost willfully naïve, but it’s exactly that self-confidence that allowed Lily to reach such unbelievable heights.
Joining the women’s national team didn’t stop Lily’s commitments to the other teams she had joined. She was still playing tournaments for the Cadets team and the under-18 U.S. team, and she had to qualify for each team every year. A workload of this size pretty understandably became a source of pressure and stress for Lily.
“As I was 13, 14, 15, I started to become pretty high-ranked in the world,” Lily says. “I kind of felt like, ‘Oh, I need to do well, I’m No. 1 ranked for this tournament.’”
The extra pressure culminated in Lily failing to qualify for the Cadets team, while she was still on the roster for the other top teams. She fell to an emotional low, even contemplating quitting the sport before having a heart to heart with her parents.
“They said, ‘If you want to quit, that’s your decision. We’re fully on your side.’ But what I realized then is I really loved table tennis as a sport, not only because I was winning,” Lily says. “That helped me through a sort of dark time.”
Lily rebounded, making a return to all three teams the next time around. And as the years went on, she continued to improve and embarrass women two and three times her age. Only one goal remained: the Olympics.
“I started playing with Lily when she was 12. … She was so dominant and looked so promising,” says Anol Kashyap, one of Lily’s early coaches. “We knew then she had the ability for the Olympics.”
Lily faced a tough road to qualify for the 2012 Games in London. She had to play through a shoulder injury because there was only one qualifying tournament, and she could not automatically qualify based on previous results. Her final opponent was incredibly tough, consistent and frustrating, but Lily managed to take the match and earn her berth in London.
She was joined on the trip by another young phenom from the Bay Area, Ariel Hsing. A lot was made of two 16-year-olds representing the U.S., and the documentary “Top Spin” chronicled their path to qualification. Even for someone who had been through so much at such a young age, the Olympics proved to be a daunting challenge. She was dispatched in a quick 4-0 match in the first round.
“In 2012, I was feeling OK before my match,” Lily says. “But when I walked out into the stadium and it was just filled with people screaming and cheering, I sort of froze up. I didn’t know how to handle myself during the actual match. It’s a little bit of a blur to me.”
After the Olympic experience, Lily’s game seemed to finally break into the next level; she started to regularly win women’s tournaments instead of just impressing with her age. And two years later, in the middle of one of her best seasons, she had to deal with college applications, a process most Olympians have long since passed.
Having U.S. Olympian under “achievements” never hurts your chances with admissions officers, and Lily committed the ultimate teenage rebellion by moving across the bay to Berkeley, scorning Stanford and her father — though he didn’t really mind at all.
For the first time, Lily just got to be a student. She decided to give herself a year of life as a civilian, playing only once or twice a month and hardly participating in competitions.
“It was good for me to take a break and have a normal life, hang out with friends,” Lily says. “I never really had that my entire life. I didn’t have time to do normal teenage things like go to concerts. I don’t regret (my childhood), but it was nice to have a break from the craziness.”
However nice it was, Lily still had too much love for the game to leave it for long. So many kids who have been forced into a sport never return once they get their first taste of life away from it, but Lily was not a prisoner to her game. Her dedication was genuine, and she took the next year off to go full-time. She moved to Austria, enrolled in a table tennis academy and began playing in professional leagues. Adding to the incentives for recommitting to the game? Another shot at Olympic glory.
“That was sort of the motivating factor for me to try and make it to Rio. It was different because I was older, more mature, stronger physically and mentally. I knew to appreciate every moment.”
So Lily ripped off a career year from 2015 to 2016, winning the North American Championships and the U.S. singles and doubles titles. And best of all, she got back to the Olympics. Lily advanced to the third round, eliminating the 31st-ranked player in the world along the way. But that wasn’t the important part of the experience.
“I felt like I didn’t appreciate (2012) as much as I could have, I didn’t take in every moment fully,” Lily says. “That was sort of the motivating factor for me to try and make it to Rio. It was different because I was older, more mature, stronger physically and mentally. I knew to appreciate every moment.”
Having played on the world’s biggest stage twice and earning a lifetime of trophies, Lily is back in school playing part-time. And taking time off again means she finds herself at the biggest crossroads of her career. She has given herself this year to decide whether to keep going with school or move to Europe or Asia and try to become one of very few American professional table tennis players. Having proved to herself that she can be among the top in the world when she is fully committed to the game has made the decision all the more difficult.
“I think I would be satisfied for the most part (if I stayed in school),” Lily says. “I’ve done a lot. But at the same time, there’s something in the back of my mind saying, ‘You could be better, you could be the best in the world.’ … It’s just two completely different worlds I’m in, and I love both so much. I wish I could have both, but I know eventually I’m going to have to choose one or the other.’’
If she decides to stay in school, it would be a commitment to graduating, getting her degree and a real job, moving on from playing the sport in any serious way. Lily got to enjoy a long career as a kid, but now as an adult, she’s learning the harsh lesson that once you’re responsible for yourself, chasing your dream comes with a big risk.
What’s Lily prize for escaping the pitfalls that have caused so many other prodigies to fail? She gets to be just like the rest of us. Lily has lived a lifetime before reaching 20, but she still has another lifetime ahead of her. If her past tells us anything, whatever path she chooses, we should keep betting on her to beat the odds.
Contact Andrew Wild at [email protected].