By Keith Lair, Staff Writer
PASADENA – It was the wrong time to get nervous.
Erica Wu was in front of her friends and teachers at the Westridge School. One of America’s newest Olympians kept hitting balls into the net in a table tennis demonstration in front of all of the Pasadena school’s students.
“I was really nervous when I got up there,” the sophomore said. “Everyone knows I’m an Olympian. It’s such a precise sport and such a fast sport that it puts a lot of pressure on you to react fast. When you’re nervous, it’s hard to do that.
“They’re all my friends and I see them every day, so if I do really badly, it is really embarrassing. I wanted to show them what I could do and I missed a little more than I wanted to.”
The students cheered the performance wildly, regardless of how she hit the ball.
“It is such an honor for Erica to represent the U.S. and, of course, carry the Westridge flag,” Westridge administrator Elizabeth McGregor told the ensemble. “This is one of those momentous days in Westridge history and it has Erica written all over it.”
Wu, who lives in Arcadia, earned the United States’ third and final Olympic berth by placing third at the North American Table Tennis trials two weeks ago in Cary, N.C.
Wu, who turns 16 on May 15, defeated Judy Hugh of Warren, N.J., four games to two in a best-of-7 competition. Each game is played to 11 points.
“The day I did make it, I was not sure in the ceremony,” she said.
“When I sat down back at the hotel, I realized I just made the Olympics. It’s an amazing feeling. It’s a random feeling. Sometimes I’ll be walking and have that (Olympic) thought. Other times, I think my life is exactly the same.”
Wu will be part of the team competition, Aug. 3-7 in London. Her teammates, Ariel Hsing of San Jose and Lily Zhang of Palo Alto, also high school teenagers, will compete in singles as well as in team competition.
Wu has no illusions of what the results will be. China has won 20 of the 24 gold medals and 41 of the 76 overall medals since the sport was added to the Games in 1988.
“I don’t have any chance of taking a medal,” said Wu, who won a national doubles title with her coach, Gao Jun, last December. “We’re really young. All of those people from Europe and Asia … they’re all 20-something, 30-something. They are a lot older than us and we have a lot of catching up to do if we want to beat them.
“Making the team was the biggest goal for me. I’m going to the Olympics for the experience and to see what I can learn from other people there. But medaling is not one of my goals.”
Wu began playing table tennis when she was 7. She now plays for the Gao Jun Table Tennis Club in El Monte, practicing 90 minutes on weekdays and three to four hours on weekends. Jun opted to not try for an Olympic berth this year.
“During the years, I wanted her to stop and quit,” said her mother, Johan Pao. “She was the one who really wanted to keep going. To me, it’s a huge commitment.”
Pao, who emigrated to the U.S. with her husband, Peter Wu, more than 20 years ago, had to quit her job as an actuary to shepherd the couple’s only child to national and international tournaments, including to what has become a regular two-month summer table tennis school in China.
Because there is no one at Wu’s skill level to practice with, the family has had to hire top-level Chinese players to work with her. Top-ranked Chinese player Jay Duan is currently living with the family in Arcadia. Ironically, it’s the same house that another fellow Arcadia Olympian, figure skater Mirai Nagasu, lived in.
Pao estimates that it costs $3,000 a month to prepare for the Games, but Wu, ranked far down the list of international players, has recently gained financial support from the New York Athletic Club and Butterfly, which manufactures table tennis equipment.
“She is an Olympian, so we figure it was worth it,” Pao said.
Wu will play in the North American Cup in May, in Brazil next month and then the U.S. Open in Grand Rapids, Mich., on the Fourth of July weekend.
When Wu is in class, she’s taking advanced placement and honors classes in such subjects as chemistry, algebra and English. She is also in the school orchestra. She plays the flute. She has received nearly all A’s, except for a B+ last year.
“We do not ask her to maintain straight A’s,” Pao said. “It’s OK to get B’s with her schedule. She does all that studying by herself.”
Wu originally thought her best chance at the Games was 2016. But she made the U.S. national team two years ago. She nearly missed qualifying for the Games before reaching that third-place match two weeks ago in North Carolina.
The final trials involved eight players, including four Canadians. Because Hsing and Zhang went 1-2 in the singles event, Wu needed that third-place finish to earn the final team spot.
“It was the most intense tournament of my life,” she said. “The stakes were so high. If I made it, I would be an Olympian for life. I was so close to not making it.”