BEIJING - In a nation of 1.3 billion people, she was one of the best in a sport held in higher regard than all others.
Trouble was, fourth best was good enough only to get Wang Chen bounced from China's Olympic table tennis team. Not once but twice.
She is now one of 39 foreign-born athletes occupying a place on a U.S. Olympic team, and she's fulfilling a dream by competing in her hometown, even though she is doing it in a uniform not of red, but of red, white and blue.
For Chen, this was far from her plan. In fact, she thought she was through with the sport after missing out on the Atlanta Summer Games in 1996. Two years later she retired, ostensibly for good, and moved to the U.S. in '99 to help her sister run two leather goods stores in New Jersey. Chen met and married her husband, Forrest, a doctoral student in environmental engineering at Columbia University, and began to think of starting a family.
"I decided to try a new life," she said. "For a year, I made a lot of money. Then the second year, I found I could be a coach. People respected me."
And she remembered why she loved the game.
At 7, it found her when talent spotters came to her "regular school" and tested the children.
"They gave us three [ping-pong] balls and told us to throw it into a basket 10 feet away," Chen recalled. "It wasn't easy and not so many kids could do it. It tests your feel for the ball and I was very good at it."
She immediately began a nightly three-hour training regimen. "Most kids were too tired, they had to study, they wanted to quit," she recalled. "But I loved it."
At 11, Chen turned professional and moved into an apartment with other aspiring players her age. "It was little money but good food and a good apartment," she said. "We had four players in an apartment. There was a restaurant there and we would eat, sleep and train there."
By 13, she had joined the junior national team and was training for eight hours a day.
"I really liked to play," she said. That's why I could play eight hours. Other kids would play two hours and say it was boring. But I was always training."
The top players in China can earn up to $150,000 a year, Chen said. "Table tennis players are very famous. Good players do advertisements. They play every Saturday on TV. People definitely know you."
Missing the Olympic Games not once but twice, and by so close a margin, was shattering.
"When they make the decision, they don't tell you anything," she said. "You find out in the newspaper or on TV when everyone knows it."
There are no Olympic trials, so the final selection can be arbitrary.
In '06, she gained U.S. citizenship and by then had developed a large following of table tennis students, including Jerry Warsky, a real estate magnate and concentration camp survivor who encouraged Chen to try for the U.S. Olympic team and financed her comeback.
Now Chen is back in her hometown, eating her mother's home-cooking and expecting a warm welcome from the fans.
"When I first started at 7, I found out I love this game," she said.
Clearly, she still does.