Wu puts on a show at Westridge

PASADENA — Erica Wu has reached the pinnacle of her sport, and yet she’s only 15 years old.

In emerging victorious in last month’s North American Table Tennis Trials, Wu qualified to represent the U.S. women’s team in this summer’s Olympic Games in London.

“The first time I really sat down to think about it was when I got back to the hotel [that night] and I just kind of sat in my bed and I was like, ‘I just made it to the Olympics.’ It’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “Sometimes it’s randomly out of nowhere — when I’m walking then I’ll suddenly have that thought and be completely happy and excited. And then other times, my life is still the same basically, except for small stuff.”

Thursday’s demonstration at Westridge School served to show how things have changed for the sophomore, if ever so slightly.

In the morning, students filed into the school’s gymnasium to celebrate Wu’s accomplishment and watch her take a few serves against her practice partner. Admittedly nervous, Wu dropped a few balls — “a little more than I wanted to” — but she said she was excited to expose the sport to her friends and peers. Before qualifying, Wu said her friends were unaware that table tennis was an Olympic sport.

“It's hard for them, I guess, to see me actually in the Olympics because it's the biggest sporting event in the world and I'm just me. And I'm with Michael Phelps and they're not seeing that,” she said, laughing.

After the demonstration, she autographed a couple ping pong balls before meeting with reporters and doing a television interview.

Life unaltered since qualifying for the Olympics? Hardly.

Yet, Wu insists that much remains the same, at least in the classroom.

Homework assignments and exams aren’t forgiven because she’s on the other side of the country competing. In fact, she isn’t sure yet how she’ll manage to take finals and show up in Canada the following day for a tournament.

Even at the North American Table Tennis trials last month in North Carolina, Wu used the breaks in between competitions to work on homework assignments.

“It’s difficult to manage time, especially as I get older,” she said. “But everyone has their after-school activities, I’m not the only one. I just happen to do it more seriously.”

On a friend’s recommendation, Wu picked up table tennis at age 7.

Since then, her parents, who were both born in Taiwan and migrated to the United States as adults to work as actuaries, have spent considerably to support Wu.

Her mother, Johan Pao, stopped working to accompany her on trips. On average, Wu said she takes one trip a month for table tennis, for up to two weeks at a time, with her mother by her side.

This past summer, the two went on a trip to China so Wu could practice against better competition.

Asked to estimate how much the family has spent supporting Wu’s Olympic table-tennis aspirations, Pao said, “A lot.”

“I always said, if we had two [children] we couldn’t do that,” Pao added, estimating a $3,000-a-month tab. “We try not to think about it as an investment — it’s just to support her interest, her passion. But now she’s an Olympian, so we figured everything is worth it.”

The hefty bill comes, in part, to cover travel expenses and have a live-in practice partner for Wu, who stays at their Arcadia home six months at a time (because of visa limitations). A sponsorship deal with a New York athletic club has helped shed cost.

But because the opportunities to play professionally aren't as lucrative in the U.S. as in Europe and Asia, Wu maintains her playing career will likely end following the Olympics. After that, Wu, a near-straight ‘A’ student, will focus her attention on college and becoming a veterinarian.

“I still have a lot of goals,” she said, “it’s just not in table tennis.

“The most important thing is what I learned from it and how I could apply it to other things in life.”

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