I’ve played in the Olympic Games twice. The first time was in 2000 in Sydney and the second in 2004 in Athens. I’ve played in a few World Championships, Pro Tours, leagues in Sweden and Germany, won a Gold medal in the Pan American Games, and represented North America in the World Cup, but nothing compared to the Olympic experience.
There were many requests for interviews from the media. In 2004, I was in New York for the Media Summit. It was an entire day of interviews for TV, radio, and newspapers. In my hometown, San Jose, CA, I was interviewed by all the local TV stations and newspapers. It was good publicity for table tennis and a lot of fun with all the media exposure. Unfortunately, it only happens every four years.
Even with all these obligations as an Olympian, I was very focused on my training. In 2004, I went to Shanghai for training, played in a Pro Tour in Singapore, and trained in Germany.
Once the team arrived in Athens, the first task was to go through Team Processing. This is where the athletes get their outfits to wear in competition, opening and closing ceremonies, and medal presentation. We also get a lot of gear from our sponsors. Everyone gets a cell phone. We also sign paddles, posters, and t-shirts for our sponsors. We even had a team briefing about security, media and athlete services.
The Olympic Village and Dining Hall in Athens were much bigger than they were in Sydney. There was a McDonald’s open 24 hours a day 7 days a week. In the beginning, I thought I would never eat there but ended up going there a few times. The dining hall is buffet style with different types of cuisine. You can get soda, fresh fruit, ice cream, and other desserts. The Olympic Village has a lot of services like free laundry, movie theater, gym, and an outdoor track.
The main competition hall has four main tables. Each team can only practice at preassigned tables and times. We were able to play in the main hall a few times. We had a security escort to every practice session and were not allowed to put USA flags outside our apartments. It is also recommended that you go out in pairs when traveling outside of the Village. Also, we were told to hide our credentials when traveling in the city. Some of the media from my home town were also in Athens, so I had a few interviews with local newspapers and NBC.
The Bank of America Hometown Hopeful Program is for families of US athletes. The center provides lunch, dinner, and internet access for free to families of US Athletes. In Sydney, my daughter, Khami took pictures with the first US Olympic medalist and met Chelsea Clinton.
The Opening Ceremonies is one of the most exciting parts of being in the Olympic Games. It’s also very long and most of the time is spent waiting until we actually walk out into the stadium. The ceremony takes about eight hours and the table tennis competition starts the day after Opening Ceremonies. As a result, I decided to skip the Opening Ceremony in Athens and focus on my 1st match. If I had attended the Opening Ceremony, I wouldn’t have gotten back to the Village until early morning the next day!
I had goose bumps the first time I walked into the Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of the Sydney Olympic Games. Now I know why every athlete wants to make the Olympic Team. I think back in retrospect on how I made it to the Olympics twice. It was a very long and difficult road, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.
Around October, all US Athletes get an invitation to visit the White House. It’s a short 2-3 day trip to DC. I was very excited to meet President Clinton in 2000 because I had voted for him in 1993. All of us had a formal picture with President Clinton. The picture is still hanging on the wall at my parents’ house. In 2004, there was no formal photo with President Bush, but I was able to get a picture with him by the White House photographer.
My advice to future Olympians is to always try to get better and not focus too much on winning and losing. Once you make it to the Olympic Games, stay focused on your preparation and do not get distracted by all the media attention. You already reached a huge milestone accomplishment by representing your country. Enjoy your experience all in itself as it does go by fast and years later you’ll be where I am, wishing you could relive the moment all over again.