Editor's note: The following is an edited version of a story published in the Feb. 5, 2014, issue of PAW.
Last December, at the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas, little stood between Ariel Hsing ’17 and the singles title. Hsing was the two-time defending champion, an Olympian, and the highest-ranking American in the world. But her first college exams were looming, and as she pored over Econ 100, her opponents smelled blood. “It felt like everyone was gunning for me,” she said.
Uncharacteristically conservative as she started the finals, Hsing said, “My stamina was very low, and I was pretty nervous.” But she steadied by “taking deep breaths and counting to 10,” and unleashed her inner Tiger — a barrage of bullwhip backhands, for which she is known. Soon, she hoisted a towering trophy glinting from camera flashes, and returned to Princeton with a triple crown: victorious in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles.
By some estimates, table tennis is the world’s second-most-played sport. In the United States, it is one of only three sports that has never yielded an Olympic medal (the other two: badminton and team handball). Part of the reason, explained French and Italian Professor Volker Schroder, faculty adviser to the Princeton University Table Tennis Club, is that “it is very difficult if not impossible to maintain one’s level while in college.” American hopefuls must often choose between the table and the textbook — something Hsing, like other Princetonians before her, refuses to do, despite a reduced training regimen.
Over the past decade, Princeton has gained a reputation as a national powerhouse. For three consecutive seasons, Adam Hugh ’10, a U.S. national team member, ushered the coed team to second place at the College Table Tennis National Championships. This season, Hsing and Shirley Fu ’17, two-time Canadian women’s champion, are favored to win the women’s doubles championship in April. All three have Olympic ambitions, but only Hsing has competed in the Games — nearly upsetting the eventual gold medalist in 2012.
Hsing shrugs at her success, reciting her family motto: “It’s about the process, not the result.” Juggling classwork with world-class athletics to a degree that Schroder called “unprecedented” in Tiger table tennis, Hsing said that one boosts the other. Tracking a tiny plastic ball at 70 mph sharpens the mind, which “definitely helps when you’re studying.” Exploring modern dance lightens the feet, to “make me a little more graceful while I’m playing.”
Hsing is considering taking a year off to prepare for the 2016 Olympics. But for now, “I wake up every single day feeling happy,” she said — even on the longest of days. During team practice, Hsing and Fu trained with one another. “I’m not in peak condition,” Hsing warned, smiling blearily after an all-night photography project. Fu fired the ball over the net. “Even so,” said the Canadian champion, “you’re still the best one here.”
For the record: The original story has been edited to clarify the reference to Hsing and Fu's training during practice.