America's Olympic table tennis team hope to put the spin on competition

Most people know it as ping pong, but professional table tennis is a sport all its own. America's Olympic team, soon headed to the Summer Games in Brazil, gathered in San Francisco Thursday night.    

"A lot of people think it's a basement sport, you stand around and swing your arms wildly," competitor Lily Zhang of Milpitas told KTVU, "but it's so much more than that."

Zhang, at 20, trains six hours a day. She and two other team members are from Milpitas, and so is their leader.   

"These are one hundred percent athletes," coach Massimo Costantini told KTVU," and it is very difficult to play at this level." 

Costantini is excited about his six member squad, the first time the U.S. has fielded both a men and women's team during the same Olympic games.

At SPiN, a South-of-Market social club where ping pong tables combine with food and cocktails, team members sparred with each other, and the public. But Costantin says the difference between relaxed rallies and beating the best in the world? Spin.

"The ability to generate spin or fake spins," he explained, "that's the basis of the game." Ping pong was invented as a refined parlor game in England during the Victorian era. Now, it has more participants than any other sport in the world, although most of those are casual, recreation center type players.  

"It's a lot more mental than people realize," team member Kanak Jha told KTVU, "and they don't understand how physically fit you have to be."

In addition to stroke technique and spins, players need core strength to react and move explosively on their feet. 

At 16, Jha is the youngest player, and has opted to leave Milpitas to train in Sweden, taking his high school courses online.

"It's a very competitive environment there," he explained, "because the players are at a much higher level, so I think it's really helped me improve." 

Table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988, but no American has ever made it to the podium.

China dominates, with almost 50 medals, half of them gold.

"Emotions are high. It's the Olympics. I feel like there's going to be a lot of upsets," said Zheng excitedly. She was also on the U.S. team for the London games in 2012, but didn't get far in the single-elimination format.  

"I think I can get a few rounds in, maybe realistically three or four, but I feel like anything can happen at the Olympic games," she smiled.

Surprises could only be good, for a sport sometimes overlooked, like a ping pong table gathering dust on the patio.

"I love this game," enthused Zheng, "and I'm honored to represent my country at the Olympics!"