Derek Nie sat down in front of the camera at the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg and fielded the question from the television reporter.

"Will [making the Olympics] make all this hard work worthwhile?"

Derek, of North Potomac, paused and then shook his head. "No," he responds. "Because I still have to win the gold medal."

Never mind that the United States has never won an Olympic medal of any kind for table tennis. Never mind that Derek is just 11 years old, and never mind that he is about 4 feet tall and weighs just under 70 pounds.

It's all just part of the outline for the kid that has trained six days a week since he was 7 years old and is considered one of the best, if not the best, table tennis player in the country for his age group.

"I've been playing for 36 years, started coaching part-time 32 years ago, and have been coaching full-time for about 25 years," said Larry Hodges, one of Derek's coaches. "Every five years, a player like Derek shows up. Every five years."

Earlier this month, Derek won the 11-and-under category of the 2012 U.S. Open table tennis championships, which is the biggest tournament in the country for the sport.

In the final of the tournament, Derek's opponent, Gal Alguetti of New Jersey, had game points in every game of the match, but Derek turned all of them back. In the first game of the match, he overcame five game points to come back and win.

Hodges ties this back to a need to win that has existed ever since he started coaching Derek more than four years ago.

"When you see Derek in a training session running around the table at full speed, you see him sprinting full speed and ripping shots, and it's amazing how long he can do that," Hodges said. "It makes me tired just to watch. He has definitely made the connection between practice and winning."

Part of the reason for Derek's intense training is trying to overcome his size, which has some advantages — speed, mainly — but also gives his opponents something to pick on during matches.

"My reaction times have to be really fast to get to the ball," Derek said. "For me, it's hard because people see that I am small and they try and move me around a lot during matches."

Granted, Derek is 11 and hasn't stopped growing. By the time he is old enough to try and qualify for the Olympics, he could theoretically be the biggest player on the court.

But, no matter how big he is, Derek has his goals in mind.

evcook@baltsun.com

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