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Table tennis Team to make history in Rio

31 March 2016

TABLE TENNIS: Before a serve is returned, a ball is smashed or a rally is won, the Australian Olympic Table Tennis Team has plenty of history waiting for it in Rio.

Melissa Tapper will become Australia’s first athlete to compete at both a Paralympic Games and an Olympic Games while Jian Fang Lay will become only the second Australian woman to compete at five Olympic Games.

The duo will line up in the women’s singles competition in Rio and will be joined by first time Olympian Sally Zhang for the women’s team event.  

Fellow Olympic debutants David Powell and Chris Yan are set to take to Rio Centro’s Pavilion 3 for the men’s singles event, with Heming Hu lining up alongside them for the men’s team event.

Tapper came close to winning a medal at the London 2012 Paralympics for Australia and the 26-year-old with brachial plexus, a condition that has limited the strength and development of her right arm, will now get the chance to feature at both the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games in Rio. 

“I’m just so relieved to have got through the whole process and qualified and the making history side of things probably won’t sink in to later down the track,” Tapper said.

“I’m really hoping to turn up for the Olympics and play some of my best table tennis.”

With the London 2012 Paralympic experience and Commonwealth Games under her belt, Tapper believes she will be well prepared for her Olympic debut.

“The Paralympics was one of the biggest events I have ever competed in in terms pressure, massive crowds and the overwhelming factor of the Village.

“I think having been to something like that will no doubt help me when it comes to competing at an Olympic Games.”

Fellow history-maker Fang lay will put her name alongside fellow Olympic great Natalie Cook when she lines up for her fifth Olympic campaign in Rio.

The Games veteran arrived in Australia from China in 1994 and after a short break from the sport went on to make her Olympic debut at Sydney 2000. She has not missed a Games since.

“It is unbelievable to think that I’ve have now made it to five Olympic Games,” said Fang Lay.

“It is something that is very hard to describe and something that I am very proud to have achieved. It is always so exciting to represent Australia at an Olympic Games. 

The 43-year-old who trains in Melbourne will also break her own record of being Australia’s oldest table tennis athlete to compete at an Olympic Games.

“This will definitely be my last Games,” she said with a laugh.

Australia’s highest ranked male athlete 24-year-old David Powell just missed out on qualification for London 2012 but will now get his chance to wear the green and gold in Rio.

“A lot of hard work went into this – both in terms of time and financial sacrifice,” said Powell.

“I’m over the moon with how everything has gone and can’t wait to get over there.”

Coached since he was eight by dual-Olympian Mark Smythe, Powell believes he will be ready for the toughest competition of his life.

“Mark’s been my role model since I started the sport having been to two Olympics himself and no doubt he has been a great help on this journey.

“We have four months now so I’ll go back to the drawing board, prepare the best I can with plenty of match practice and then get over there and see what happens.”

Alongside Powell in the singles competition will be Chris Yan who headed to Australia six years ago from China to further his education and will now get the chance represent his new home at the Olympic Games.

“It is pretty exciting to make the team and like for most athletes it was always a dream to compete at an Olympics,” he said.

“I didn’t think when I came out here to study that I would ever have a chance to make the Olympics but a friend of mine encouraged me to push for selection.”

For most athletes debuting at the Olympic Games will guarantee a busy year ahead, but Yan will also have a wedding to Rio 2016 teammate Zhang in the back of his mind also.

“Sally and I met not long after we both arrived in Australia a few years ago and have played a lot of doubles together.

“We got engaged last year and will get married at the end of this year. Plans are coming along well.”

Australia qualified both a men’s and women’s team for Rio following strong results at last week’s Oceania Championships and Oceania Qualification Tournament.

Fang Lay defeated Tapper to claim Australia’s first quota before Tapper went on to beat Fiji’s Grace Lee to earn Australia a second singles position and a team spot in Rio.

Powell toppled Yan before the Sydney-based athlete bounced back to book Australia’s men’s team spot in Rio.

Zhang and Hu were awarded the final teams spots after impressing at the Australian Olympic Trials in Tweed Heads.

These athletes will be looking to produce some of the strongest results from Australian players at the Games. The previous best singles result was William Henzell’s quarter-final appearances in 2004 and 2012 while the Australian team has finished ninth at multiple Games.

Matt Bartolo

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