GAITHERSBURG — It started 7,000 miles away, in China — that was the first time Crystal Wang held a table tennis racket.
"Her grandparents introduce her to this game," Crystal's father, Quandou Wang, said. Crystal was visiting them in the summer of 2007, and they took her to a local community center where table tennis abounded and an instructor suggested she give it a shot.
Five years old at the time, Crystal could barely see over the table — the average 5-year-old stands 40 inches tall, and a standard table tennis table sits 30 inches off the ground.
But that didn't stop the young girl from taking to the century-old game.
She returned to the United States and started lessons that fall at the Maryland Table Tennis Center.
At first, Crystal was playing a few times a week. But in 2008, Quandou said, things changed.
"It became her favorite sport, not just entertainment," he said.
Now she practices almost daily, whether it is private lessons, group lessons, casual tournaments or just rallying.
Last month, that passion led Crystal to what she called her biggest accomplishment so far. She won the 21-and-under women's singles competition at the 2013 U.S. table tennis nationals.
The catch? She's 11 years old — the youngest ever to claim the title, according to officials from USA Table Tennis, which puts on the competition.
Home away from home
Seeing over the table is no longer a challenge for Crystal. In fact, she's tall for her age.
She stands, racket in hand, a couple of feet back from the table, one of a dozen or so at the Maryland Table Tennis Center.
It's a typical Sunday.
The room, chilly and quiet, is divided into courts. Pictures of successful players adorn the walls. No one speaks, but it is not silent.
There is a pleasant drone in the background: pingpong balls bouncing from racket to table to racket, occasionally landing on the floor with a dink; players' sneakers letting out squeaks on the red, rubbery floor; the periodic grunt of effort. The room overflows with energy from the crisp white balls and the focused players such as Crystal.
The center fosters Olympians and national champions. And for Crystal Wang, it could almost be considered a second home. After all, she estimated that she spends about 20 hours a week practicing there.
"I have the energy to do it, and I have motivation," Crystal said, "because if I practice a lot I could become better and probably get, like, national team."
She's right, said Doru Gheorghe, chief operating officer and high performance director and women's national team coach from USATT.
"She grew a lot as a player, as a person," Gheorghe said. "She's very strong." She's one of a few girls in the country he said he has strong hope in.
Crystal might be a champion, but she's still an 11-year-old girl.
She lives in Boyds with her father. Her mother, Difei Qi, lives in California for work. She comes back every two to three months to visit, Quandou said.
Crystal is in the sixth grade at Roberto Clemente Middle School, where she is enrolled in the magnet program. She said she enjoys math and science, and drawing in her free time. Her education continues through Saturdays with Chinese school.
But, her father said, "The best way to learn Chinese is the summer break." Each summer, Crystal spends a couple of months living with her grandparents in China and practicing her sport.
"In China, table tennis is very popular," Quandou said. "Table tennis is kind of a Chinese tradition."
Not everything comes as naturally to Crystal as table tennis does. She ended up quitting piano because she wanted to focus on table tennis, "and I wasn't really good at piano," she added, laughing.
There have been times when she's wanted to quit table tennis, too. It can be stressful, high-pressure, exhausting and overwhelming.
Sometimes she gets tired and can't focus on the game, Crystal said. Quandou said he responds by telling her that if she keeps up that way, maybe she should quit.
"But she says, 'No, I don't want to quit,'" Quandou said.
In the end, the good always outweighs the bad.
"I still really enjoy it, and I can just overcome those stuff," Crystal said. "And I really want to get in the Olympics and have a lot of motivation."
As long as Crystal is happy, Quandou is, too.
"The most important thing, I guess," he said, "is she really likes this sport."
Perhaps that's what has facilitated Crystal's success.
Competitors and coaches alike recognize her aptitude for the game.
Crystal was in the top four seeded players for last month's U.S. nationals in Las Vegas based on previous ratings and accomplishments, Gheorghe said.
All the participants were 18 years old and younger, and Crystal was the second youngest.
Gheorghe "didn't expect her to win," he said, "but she came out very strong in this tournament."
In the 21-and-under final, Crystal beat 15-year-old Angela Guan of San Jose, Calif. It wasn't the first time the two had met, and it won't be the last, the girls agreed, saying they anticipate playing each other a lot in the coming years.
"I've played her at the 2013 U.S. Open," held in July, Crystal said. "I lost, 2-3. But this [time] I won, 3-2."
"This year, I think mentally she was more stronger than last year," Crystal's coach of six years , Jack Huang, said. He said that made the difference in the win over Angela.
They're more than just opponents, though; they're friends.
"On the courts, we're competitors, but off the courts, we're all friends," Angela said. "We're there to have a good experience, to do our best."
Crystal's best, Gheorghe said, has a "magnitude which I believe was a signal for us for how big potential she has."
Since nationals, the way people in the table tennis community view Crystal has changed, Huang said.
It went, "from, 'Oh, she's just a kid,' to 'Wow, she's good,'" he said. With her speed, power, height and feel for the game, "nobody believes she's only 11."
"My goal right now is to get on the women's national team," Crystal said.
But she won't stop there.
She said she hopes to become a doctor eventually but, if that doesn't work out, an engineer. In the meantime, she has other goals.
"I want to get to the Olympics because it's going to be a really good experience traveling and playing with people from different countries," she said. "And maybe become world champion," she added with a smile.
Huang, a 1976-1983 member of the Chinese national team and a coach of 20 years, said he thinks Crystal has a chance to make it to the Olympics.
"But she need to keep going," he said. "Next Olympics, she's 16. She'll try, have a chance."
She has her skills fine-tuned, Huang said, so now it's a matter of working on the mental aspect of the sport.
"She has all it takes to be a great player," Gheorghe said.
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