When Jun Gao Chang serves, the yellow Ping-Pong ball looks like it's going over the net in slow motion. Her game is about strategy, not speed–although she can smash the ball hard when she wants to. She angles her serves so that opponents have to scramble to the side for the ball.
Jun Gao Chang's opponents sweat. She doesn't. She can play a game without once sending her ponytail swaying. She just keeps sending the ball over the net, sending one opponent after another to the showers.
"She is a very smart player," says Michael Master of Silver Spring after losing a set. "It's all about placement. She has incredible control. Only ten guys in the country can play against her and have a good shot at winning."
This isn't the Ping-Pong you played in your parents' basement. This is the Olympic sport of table tennis. And our best hope for a medal is Jun Gao Chang, 31, of Gaithersburg.
The top-ranked female player in the nation–and 20th in the world–she was named to this summer's US-Canada Olympic table-tennis team. In table tennis, teams represent continents, not individual countries.
United States of America Table Tennis sent Gao on a six-week trip to Cambodia and China last winter to expose her to the Chinese players. "They were younger, faster, stronger," Gao reports. But she has years of playing on her side.
"Her experience is her best asset," says Vicki Ulrich of USATT. "If she can return the serves and get into a rally, she has a very good chance in Sydney."
Gao grew up in China, where table tennis is a national obsession. When she was five, her father decided she had potential and took her to a school for athletes. There, Gao practiced three hours a day. Because she was too small to reach the table, it was lowered into a hole in the ground.
At 12, Gao was picked for her province's table-tennis team. After that she had little time for academics. At 17, she moved up to the national team in Beijing and began playing in international competitions.
Gao came to the United States for Ping-Pong, but she stayed for love. While visiting Las Vegas for the Table Tennis Doubles Cup in 1992, her former coach introduced her to Frank Chang, a University of Maryland graduate whose family had emigrated from Taiwan when he was 13. Chang had come to Las Vegas expressly to meet Gao. The couple married in 1993.
Marriage almost marked the end of Gao's career. Frank's parents felt that Ping-Pong was an unseemly occupation for their daughter-in-law. After a few years, family resistance softened, and Gao began playing again. She won the national championship in 1996 and became a US citizen soon after. The ink was hardly dry on her citizenship papers when USATT asked Gao to represent the United States. "Okay, fine," she said.
When she played on the Chinese National Team, table tennis was her only job. She was cosseted and coached by the best.
Now Gao has to scramble like other US athletes in minor sports. She has no personal coach and just started to train with the team this summer, before the Sydney games.
Three other national champions often practice with Gao at Potomac Community Center, where the Potomac Country Table Tennis Club meets twice a week. Junior champion Sunny Li lives in Potomac, and Todd Sweeris, a member of the1996 Olympic team, lives in Bethesda. Two-time collegiate champ Sean Lonergan lives in Germantown. When they aren't available, Gao plays amateurs who vie for the chance to face her.
At Potomac Community Center, Gao is a celebrity. Admirers talk about her grip. Gao holds her paddle like a pen; most Americans use the "shake hands" grip.
On a recent Saturday night, more than 100 people were at the community center for a China-versus-Taiwan tournament. Gao was asked to present the trophies and pose for pictures with the winners. When the evening ended, preteen girls approached their idol shyly to say, "Goodnight, Gao."
In this setting, Gao seems more Chinese than American. How does she feel about competing against her former teammates?
"Before, I fight hard for China. Now I fight hard for America. I just change countries, but it's still table tennis."