By Sean Hartnett
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Jennifer Wu’s rise to Olympic fame is a true underdog story.
As a child in Beijing, her obsession with video games left her with poor eyesight. Searching for a way to correct her vision, advice from her mother’s co-worker was to take up pingpong.
At the time, it was just a hobby designed to improve her eyesight. Little did she or her family know that one day the sport of table tennis would send her to competitive tournaments across the globe and place her on a path to represent the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“My eyes were so bad,” Wu told WFAN.com. “Pingpong helped my eyesight a lot. My eyesight now is really strong. Watching the ball and the speed of my opponent’s paddle helped.”
The 26-year-old became a U.S. citizen in 2014. Born with the given name Yue, she has adopted Jennifer as her Americanized name, calls Fort Lee, New Jersey, home and is accustomed to American culture and cuisine.
“It was a very natural step,” Wu said. “I came to the United States when I was 18 in 2008. If I wanted to play in the Olympics, I had to become a U.S. citizen. At first, everything was different from China. After two or three years, I started to love it here. There’s so many things to do, places to go and kinds of food to taste. I love eating pizza and pasta. Now, I am very comfortable here. The freedom is great, and it’s very exciting to represent the United States.”
More than any cultural adaptation, her greatest challenge was adjusting to an offensive style.
“In 2010 or 2011, I met my new coach and worked hard on my new style,” she said. “I have changed my style a lot. I attack a lot. I am an offensive player. I started losing some matches and tournaments. I didn’t play very well.”
The 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto is where it all clicked into place. Seeded last in the women’s bracket, Wu overcame the odds. She defeated naturalized Brazilian Gui Lin 4-3 in the gold medal final to earn automatic entry to the Rio games. Wu captured gold in both singles and team tournaments. Her doubles partners are Californians Lily Zhang and Jiaqi Zheng. As a trio, they defeated Lin and the Brazilians in the final.
“Pan Am is when it changed for me,” Wu said. “It became a lot more natural for me. The experience of winning at Pan Am is when I became myself. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the Olympics.”
As part of her preparation for Rio, she reviews footage of opponents in hope of finding a weakness to exploit and fine-tunes her own game.
“For really big matches, I study videos of other players to learn something,” Wu said. “I’m very quiet. I don’t have a lot of people around before an important match. My coaches give me opponents to study and work with me on strategies. Sometimes I watch alone. When I train here in the U.S., I send the videos back to coach Ma Kaixuan in Beijing. He will study them and tell me what I need to change.”
Wu typically spends three to four days a week practicing and has struck up a friendship with actor Judah Friedlander of “30 Rock” fame. She will set aside time to give the comedian one-hour lessons at Spin table tennis club.
The East 23rd Street hangout also has attracted the likes of Justin Bieber, Jimmy Fallon and Scarlett Johansson, and is co-owned by Susan Sarandon.
Friedlander has taken a particular interest in Wu’s career. He’s traveled to important matches, set up an Instagram account and even helped her study for her naturalization exam.
“I met him when I first came here,” Wu said. “At the time, I didn’t know who he was or what he was doing in comedy. After a while, one of my friends told me that he was a famous comedian. When I got to know him, he was a very normal person. He likes to play pingpong, and I’m very serious. He will ask me a lot of questions about serving with different types of spin and, ‘If I serve with this type of spin, how do I return?’ He’s smart and enjoys learning more about the sport. We’re good friends.”
The United States is yet to earn an Olympic medal in table tennis on either the men’s or women’s bracket. That could change with Wu heading to Rio.
“It’s my dream to play in the Olympics,” Wu said. “If I can win gold or get a medal, I think it will really help the sport in the U.S. I want to help the sport grow.”
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey