NEW YORK CITY — For table tennis athlete Jennifer Wu, it’s as if everything has returned to normal. Well, almost everything. After Rio 2016, Wu finally realized her dream. She became an Olympian with a fancy “Team USA” ring. Wu met Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. She walked the red carpet for an awards show in D.C. and President Obama welcomed her with a smile at the White House.
But now the glitter has worn off and it’s time to get back to work.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Wu leans back on a plush chair in a lounge of a table tennis facility called SPiN New York. She’s wearing a black hoodie that says “Sorry I’m busy from now until 4 ever” and black sweatpants which feel fitting for a room decorated with graffiti art. She had just finished coaching one of her students and took a moment to relax.
At SPiN were no crowds nor table tennis nerds clawing for autographs. Just the poppy pitter patter of ping pong balls bouncing around the room and a group of teenagers trying to learn how to play. Wu doesn’t yet feel like a superstar.
“No. Right now I’m just an Olympian,” Wu told Excelle Sports. “I don’t have a gold medal or something like that. So I want to keep going and work harder.”
Wu was born and raised in China and she uprooted her life to make it to Rio. Table tennis in China is super competitive and she thought her chance for making an Olympic team was better in the U.S. She moved to the state eight years ago, became a citizen in 2014 and won the 2015 Pan Am Games to earn her spot on Team USA. Wu may not have won an Olympic medal but her experience in Rio was worth all of the sacrifice, she said.
“It felt completely different than I have for other tournaments,” Wu said. “Usually I’m so nervous when I’m competing. But when I played at the Olympics I was so excited. I think it was too much. I couldn’t control myself. But I enjoyed it a lot.”
[More from Excelle: Jennifer Wu sacrifices it all for USA Table Tennis]
Wu acknowledged that the competition was tough. She got knocked out of the second round of the tournament. Despite the loss, Wu knows that she’s slowly gaining the experience to play well at such a high level. Her experience at the Olympics and her victory at the Pan Am Games allowed her to play at the World Cup in Philadelphia earlier this month.
“I did okay,” said Wu. “It was my first time playing in a World Cup and I didn’t have enough experience. Only 20 people in the world compete in that tournament. I just tried my best.”
She claims it’s not easy being a table tennis player in the United States because there is not a lot of money in the Olympic development program. Unlike athletes in Asia, American ping pong players don’t always get access to the resources they need like training partners, coaches and doctors. But Wu thinks that the U.S. is improving.
“Right now, everything is really hard for me,” she said. “But I feel like table tennis is more popular than before. This was the first time that a World Cup was in the US. But we still need money. Many really good players stop after college because they can’t make money.”
In the next couple of weeks, Wu will move to France to play in the French leagues. At least there they will pay her. She doesn’t know a lick of French but she’s not embarrassed to show off the few words she knows.
“Bonjour! Salut,” she laughed. Good thing she will have a Chinese teammate that will help her get around.
As for her next goals, Wu is looking to play at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2020 and get her college degree online. She thinks she wants to major in sports management, she said.
“Actually I want to study English first. But I’m coaching, practicing and competing. So much stuff. But if you want more, you need to pay up right?”