Sport: Women's Table Tennis (singles and team)
Birthday: June 16, 1996 (age 20)
Hometown: Palo Alto, California (her father is a math professor at Stanford)
Cal affiliation: current California Golden Bears student, she is an intended psychology major
Years at Cal: 2014 - present
Olympic appearances: 2012 London (youngest Table Tennis player in the entire Olympic, lost in 1st round), 2016 Rio
Since the NCAA does not sponsor table tennis as a sport nor does Cal Athletics sponsor the sport (like men's crew and rugby which are both not governed by the NCAA), Cal student Lily Zhang is an unique Calympian who is not quite a part of the official Cal Athletics family.
With Cal Table Tennis being a recreation/club sport on campus, they do compete in the NCTTA Nationals yearly. Lily Zhang won the 2015 women's singles and the women's team finished 2nd in the country.
Like plenty of Rio Calympians, Lily took the 2015-16 school year off to improve her game. She played professionally oversea at the Austrian club SVNO Strock to hone her skills against in the European professional league.
Even without them being official student-athlete (Lily has some professional sponsors so she's technically a professional athlete), It is great that the official CalBears.com page does list her and also other athletes like Jonny Moseley of Winter Olympic fame (rather than hosting those MTV challenges) in the list of "Cal Olympians".
Go Bears!— Lily Zhang (@lilyannzhang) December 13, 2014
Despite a young age, Lily Zhang is a very experienced player in the U.S. national stage - being one of the top two players in the United States since when the age of 14.
From Lily's Team USA profile:
The key international result listed above is her 2014 Youth Olympic Games Bronze medal, which is the historical first U.S. medal in the sport of table tennis from either the Olympics or the Youth Olympics.
While the intro and closing graphics are a bit over the top, do check out in the video below of a 17 year old Lily Zhang in action from 2014, when she made the U.S. National team for the 3rd time.
More on Lily and her Rio outlook:
Lily is one of the three American teenage table tennis players whose quests to become 2012 London Olympian were the focuses of the ~70 minutes documentary, Top Spin. The movie is available on Netflix, and I believe it is well worth the time (then again I really love the Quad Rugby documentary, Murderball, the spelling bee documentary, Spellbound, and the crossword puzzle documentary, Wordplay), even if the climax is somewhat spoiled by the information presented earlier in this post.
Also featured in the movie is Lily's frenemy Ariel Hsing, who is attending Princeton currently. After advancing to the 3rd round of the 2012 London Olympic, Ariel has given up on international competitive table tennis after briefly playing professionally in Europe. Ariel, one year older than Lily, has stayed ahead of Lily in the U.S. National competitions until 2013.
Of course, Lily came to Cal after graduating high school in 2014. Like many other Calympians, she is currently taking the year off to concentrate on making it back to the Olympic games. Since the 2012 Olympics, Lily has ascended to the top of the US Women's Table Tennis - she's won the US National Singles in 2012, 2014, and 2016.
2016 U.S. National Champion! pic.twitter.com/UrfySTcLMJ— Lily Zhang (@lilyannzhang) July 14, 2016
Playing in the Close Table Attacker style like the most of the top players in the world, her game was compared by a table tennis expert in Top Spin to that of a table tennis Roger Federer. Despite how the U.S. table tennis is ranked fairly low in the world, Lily has also managed to get some international success, earning that previously mentioned historic Youth Olympic Games medal.
From the official press release about the 6 Team USA representatives in table tennis to Rio:
Lily Zhang is the only U.S. athlete to medal at an Olympic or Youth Olympic Games. She won bronze at the Youth Olympics in 2014 in Nanjing, China. Also competing at the London 2012 Games, Zhang became the only U.S. athlete ever to compete at an Olympic Games before a Youth Olympic Games. The 19-year-old won bronze at the Pan American Games last year. Zhang won the second day of trials.
Thanks to the US Women's Team win at the 2015 Pan Am game, Lily will get to compete in both the singles and as a team (she won the 2016 US national doubles title with Jiaqi Zheng).
Finally, check out the following recent interviews by Lily to learn more about her thought on Taylor Swift's dating life and favorite TV show.
Being the lone repeat Olympian in the Team USA Table Tennis contingent, Lily is the face of U.S. women's table tennis. She thinks the sports is improving in the U.S., even if people keeps on asking her about her beer pong ability when they learns that she's table tennis player.
Even with her at the top of the game in the United States, Lily faces some really tough international competition, especially from China. Nevertheless, Lily and her lucky paddle from the London game should be making a deeper run in Rio. Unless she gets burned out by the sport, Lily should also be a factor in the 2020 Tokyo games.
Good luck to Lily in Rio and GO BEARS!