Ping pong dreaming for 16-year-old US Olympian

Ariel Hsing was 8 when she wrote down her Olympic dream on a piece of paper. She rolled it up, wrapped it with a string and tucked it into a small box.

"I said something along the lines of I wish to become an Olympian one day," the 16-year-old Californian recalled. "Then for eight years I convinced myself that if I opened the piece of paper and read it, my wish could not come true."

She didn't, and it did.

Hsing will represent the United States in table tennis at the London Olympics, and she'll be going with two other Californians who are even younger -- 16-year Lily Zhang and 15-year-old Erica Wu. The lone men's representative will be Tim Wang of Houston, Texas.

Hsing has suddenly become a celebrity in a sport that gets scant attention in the United States.

For starters, she is buddies with billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, close enough to call them "Uncle Warren" and "Uncle Bill."

A ping pong buff, Buffett met Hsing when she was only 9 and already a top youth player. Two years later he invited her to play against shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting. She has returned several times, including last month after winning a spot on the U.S. team.

She faced both Buffett and Gates this time.

"Of course Uncle Warren and Uncle Bill have won points against me," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They're actually pretty good, a lot better than the average person I would say."

Now that's ping pong diplomacy.

In an annual letter to shareholders, Buffett wrote of his first experience facing Hsing.

"The week I turned 75 I played Ariel, then 9 and barely tall enough to see across the table, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me," he said.

In an email to The Associated Press, Buffett said he had hoped to go see her play in London, but will be having treatment that week for prostate cancer.

Buffett said he was struck by Hsing's "modesty, discipline, friendliness, and focus."

Asked if he ever won a legitimate point off her, Buffett replied: "Perhaps one, but she set me up for it."

Ariel's father Michael has been juggling dozens of interview requests, and one U.S. television network is filming a documentary about her.

Despite the sudden fame, she sees herself primarily as a junior at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California. She just attended the junior prom, and her attention is on college entrance exams and a goal of being accepted at Stanford University to study business.

"I don't think I'm famous at all," she said. "People at my school recognize me. They say: 'You're the ping pong girl."'

Hsing offers insight into a game now ruled by Asians, and Chinese in particular. Americans in the 1930s and 40s were briefly among the best, a period when central Europeans held sway.

Hsing developed a love of ping pong (that's what the game's called in China) from her father, who emigrated 25 years ago from Taiwan, and her mother Xin Jaing, who came to the United States a bit earlier from Henan province in east-central China.

They trained as computer engineers, and Ariel said she started playing at 7, fetching balls for her parents in matches at a local recreation center.

"The first year I could beat her," Michael said. "After 8, I could not."

China has won 20 of 24 gold medals since table tennis entered the Olympics in 1988, and is expected to win all four gold medals when the London Olympics open on July 27. The five top-ranked players in the world -- male and female -- are all Chinese. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Germany fill out the other top 10 spots.

Hsing is ranked No. 134, Zhang is 145 and Wu is 465. Wang is 381 on the men's list.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China uses its vast numbers and a Soviet-style sports school system to dominate the game, putting players through six hours of daily practice and winnowing the field as players grow older.

"For a lot of Americans, ping pong it just a basement sport," Hsing said. "It's just a sport you play with family and friends and hit the ball around. In China, it's the national sport. It's kind of like the NBA."

Hsing speaks Mandarin -- "My English is better," she said -- and has spent several spells training in China. She knows what she'll face in London. Part of the focus this time is getting experience and, perhaps, looking ahead to the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

"Kids in China and kids in the U.S. have pretty similar levels, but as they grow older the kids in China train professionally," Hsing said. "Whereas kids in the U.S. have to balance homework and school. So it gets harder. We train less. That's where the gap starts to grow."

Hsing practices with as many as eight coaches, each offering a little something different. Massimo Costantini is Italian. Stefan Feth is German. Dennis Davis is an American. Several others have roots in China, including former Chinese world champion Li Zhenshi, and Zhou Xin, who coached Hsing at the recent Olympic trials.

And the national women's team coach Teodor "Doru" Gheorghe, who is from Romania.

Previous U.S. teams have featured Chinese-American players born abroad. This time the focus is on a generation born in the United States.

Sean O'Neill, who played for the U.S. in the 1988 and `92 Olympics, said table tennis has suddenly become cool, partly due to the ping pong club SPiN, co-founded in Manhattan by actress Susan Sarandon.

"It is no longer the Forest Gump, nerdy moniker we have to deal with," said O'Neill, a spokesman for USA Table Tennis. "It is definitely one of the hip things."

O'Neill used Zhang to point out a possible American rise in the sport. Zhang was ranked No. 2 in the world as an under-15 woman.

"We've never had that kind of international standing," he said. "That being said, if China would put out 50 girls -- they usually put out only two or three in this age group -- Lily might have been No. 53. China has the depth that no other country can compete with."

Ariel said her mother and father have tried to keep life normal, and she tries to control the pressure with little tricks, like writing "Let's Go, Have Fun" on her left forearm before big matches.

"I tend to put a lot of pressure on myself," she said.

She quoted advice from her mother in the nervous weeks leading up to Olympic qualifying: "Ariel, why are you doing this to yourself? You don't have to make it on your first try. You have 2016, you have 2020. You have so many more opportunities. It isn't going to be the end of the world if you don't make it."

Her father likes to cite the family motto: "We focus on the process rather than the results."

Hsing, Zhang and Wu won bronze medals last year at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico. But the competition was tougher earlier this year at the World Team Championships in Dortmund, Germany. Hsing faced Guo Yan of China, ranked No. 3 in the world, and lost 3-0.

"She kicked my butt, but some games were a little bit closer than others," Hsing joked.

She was equally frank about the Olympics.

"Of course, the goal is always to win a medal," she said. "If this was just me, I would say I have no chance. But I'm representing my country. I'm representing the U.S. and I will represent them as well as I can. I hope everyone will be really proud of me."

Especially, Uncle Warren and Uncle Bill.