Building up a broken dream

Peter Li took a year off before coming to Cal to train for the Olympics. But the heavily-favored table tennis star came up shockingly short in his bid for London.

Peter Li/Courtesy

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Peter Li’s story all comes down to four days of intense competition at the Olympic Trials in Cary, N.C.

Having recently won the 2011 USA National Men’s Singles Championship, Li was the favorite to win the U.S. Olympic Trials. His focus after winning the national title could not be broken, the next step in his career was to make the Olympic team.

Li took a gap year from Cal to train for the event, for which he spent four months training in China.

“I mean, the Olympics are only once every four years, so I might as well give it a try,” Li says.

Li came back from his four months of training only to compete at the 2011 U.S. Table Tennis Championships. Li immediately returned to China after his feat to continue to train for the Olympic Trials, which were only two short months away.

But, what would have otherwise been an off day of competition for Li, fell on one of the most important days of his career at the Olympic Trials.

Having won only four out of seven of his games at the trials, Li needed to place in the top four in order to compete in the 2012 North America Olympic Games Qualifying Tournament for the Olympic slots.

But he came up short, finishing fifth.

On the most important days of his life, Li dropped the ball, literally.

For most Men’s Singles Champions, a fifth place finish at the Olympic Trials would be far more than upsetting. It would be devastating. But for Li, he sees his loss at the Olympic Trials simply as a bad day of competition for him.

“A couple of my matches didn’t go my way, and I just had a bad day, which happened to fall on the day of the Olympic Trials,” Li says.

The son of a recreational table tennis player, Li’s story begins at a local table tennis center, where he would sit after his piano lessons and watch his father play.

“A lot of (his father’s friends at the center) kept pressuring me, telling me that I should try it ‘cause I would just sit there all day, all the time. So I tried it out,” Li says.

By the age of 9, Li began sweeping national competitions, making a name for himself within the table tennis community. In 2002, at the AAU U10 Junior Olympics, Li won gold medals in the singles, doubles and teams competitions. Then, at the age of ten, Li won the U10 U.S. National Boy’s Singles competition.

Li recalls this moment as a pivotal point in his career.

“After all of that, I started taking (table tennis) more seriously, taking more lessons every week and training more in general,” Li says.

Li’s ambition didn’t stop there. At the age of 12, he began traveling to China for one or two months over his summer breaks to train. China’s domination in the sport and its organized system of training offered Li the chance to excel even further in the sport he was growing to love. Li, noting the USA was still in its fetal stages of table tennis, prefers the Chinese system of training.

“I for sure enjoyed the Chinese system of training more,” Li says. “It’s friendly competition because you’re always training with those that are higher and lower levels than you. Just seeing everyone around you improve makes you want to improve as well. You also have coaches watching you all the time, which I like. In the U.S., you’re on your own, and you only see your coaches and teammates once in a while.”

At the age of 13, Li made the National Table Tennis Team for the first time. Li maintained a spot on the national team level for five years straight. From 2007-08, he was a team member on the U.S. National Cadet Team (U15) and then the U.S. National Junior Team (U18) from 2009-11.

Li recalls the sacrifices he made for table tennis as an adolescent and all of the rewards that came from them.

“There were sacrifices I had to make to go to these tournaments but it was all worthwhile,” Li says. “You ask any other normal teenager where they have traveled and most of them have only been to a couple places, but I was able to travel to around 20 different countries. I’ve had the opportunity to experience all these different cultures and without table tennis, none of that would have been possible.”

Li’s journey to the Olympic Trials spanned over a decade of competition and exposure. Those 10 years came down to four days of competition at the Olympic Trials, and Li fell short. Li’s second chance will come in 2016, where he will hopefully have more success at 23 than he did at 19.

Despite his loss, Li entered the Olympic Trials with the mentality that his recent national title did not guarantee him a spot on the Olympic team.

“At that level, I wouldn’t say that any of us were guaranteed a spot,” Li says. “I didn’t think that one person had an advantage over everyone else. I guess a lot of people did think I was the favorite to get in, but I didn’t feel like that. The competition was so close; it could have been anyone’s spots.”

Despite his Olympic flop, a failure which he continues to downplay, Li plans to continue his career as a table tennis player. The Bay Area offers him a flourishing community of table tennis players. A lot of Chinese immigrant players in the Bay Area now coach table tennis, making the Bay a hot spot for training in table tennis.

Impressed by their involvement in intercollegiate national competition, Li also plans to join the Cal table tennis team, with distant hopes for the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I think that if I stick with it and continue to practice hard, I’ll still have a pretty good shot for the Olympics in 2016.”