Growing up as one of the best table tennis players in the world isn’t like a normal childhood, but it brings its own reward.
You are probably unsure about what career to follow while still at school. But Ma Lin knew exactly what he’d be doing from a very young age.
The table tennis legend took up the sport at the age of six and had won his first national championship by 14. That same year, he earned a place on the national team. Twenty years later, he still remembers what it felt like to be a young boy picked to represent his country. For one, he was too excited to sleep. “[For me] it was the most prestigious place in table tennis,” he says.
Visiting Creative Primary School earlier this month, the three-time Olympic gold medallist told students what it was like to compete with the best.
Growing up in a professional training school, far away from his hometown and his parents, Ma didn’t have a normal childhood.
“To most people, childhood means happiness and growing up with parents,” he says. “Us athletes are a different group. When other [kids] are playing, we are training; when they are hanging out with their families, we are with teammates and coaches.”
But Ma doesn’t have regrets.
“Everyone has a different life path. Once you choose to become an athlete, sure you have a lot to lose. But if you work hard, you also have a lot to gain.”
He says that the most important thing – for ordinary people as well as champion athletes – is to never give up under pressure.
“Everyone is facing their own problems on their own life paths, life can’t be all plain sailing … it’s important to face difficulty, set your own goals and work your way through them one at a time,” Ma told the students.
Motivated by that spirit, Ma earned his place in table tennis history. He was regarded as one of the best players of his generation and won 18 international titles, including the World Championships, World Cup, and the Olympics.
Although he retired from playing 13 months ago, he’s still heavily involved with the sport. He is currently the director of the Guangdong Table Tennis Centre and head coach of the provincial team. He also spends his time visiting schools and talking to the next generation.
Ma says that it is important to drum up interest if table tennis is to have a bright future. But he also says getting involved in sport will help students in other ways.
Coach Wong Fung-Ying from Creative Primary School agrees. She says table tennis increases students’ coordination and flexibility, adding that her students are more focused in class as a result.
During his visit, Ma played with students and teachers. Aaron Chung Shing-he and Bryan Yeung Yat-long, both 11 and on the school team, learned some tricks from the master. But Ma admits he isn’t the player he once was. In fact, he says, he’s grown fat since retiring.
“Watching [younger players] competing in high-level games, I imagine it was me on the field, recalling the old days.”
Still, he has no regrets: “Table tennis has given me the chance to go through everything in life, good and bad. It’s a lot of fun.”