Table tennis: Gong makes second straight national team

Tong Tong Gong is getting pretty good at the whole underdog thing. For the second straight year, the Ellicott City resident traveled to the trials for the USA National Cadet table tennis team as a long shot. And for the second straight year, Gong didn't let that stand in his way.

Seeded 10th going into this year's trials in Virginia Beach, Va., Gong won four of five matches, including upsetting top-seeded Charles Deng, of Houston, on his way to finishing third overall and making the four-man team.

"The funny thing is that I wasn't playing well, actually the whole year. That's why I was seeded low, so I didn't really know how I was going to do," said Gong, a 14-year-old freshman at Centennial High School. "But as I played, I kept getting more and more confidence.

"I had done it before, so I knew I could do it again."

Gong was seeded ninth when he qualified last year and between the two years at trials he has now pulled off nine victories over players seeded higher than him. Even better, he managed to never lose to a lower-ranked player.

Naturally, though, there were some tenuous moments.

In the match with Deng, for example, Gong was down match point twice before eventually coming back to win, 3-2.

"I just kept on fighting and never believed that I couldn't do it," Gong said.

As a member of the National Cadet squad, which is made up of players age 15 and younger, Gong will again get to travel the world over the next year. In 2011, he made trips to Canada, China and Europe to train and play in tournaments with the rest of the team.

"The travel is definitely a major incentive for making the team," said Gong, who is the only repeat member from last year's squad. "It's really an exciting experience, getting to be in a foreign place for an extended period of time like that."

Gong trains between five and six days a week, primarily at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, in Gaithersburg. In addition, he participates in match play twice a week at the Baltimore Table Tennis Club.

Long term, he has his sights set on working toward making the U.S. Olympic Table Tennis team in 2016. Between now and then, though, there are smaller milestones.

"Next year my focus is on making the junior team … I was knocked out in the qualifying round this year," Gong said. "That's the next step for me. Ultimately, the Olympic team is the big goal, but I'm trying to just take it one step at a time."

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