“Even though I’m getting older, my heart still beats with youthful energy.” Absolutely. Champions seem to have 2 distinct modes: the smiling, friendly, confident face of the day-to-day, and then there is the intense, no-nonsense one that gets switched on during competition. Lily Yip is a former Chinese Olympic team member. People who have played and won at that level never lose that particular mindset. When I ask Lily how she thinks she will do at the Senior Games this summer, the smile disappears; there is just the matter-of-fact declaration that she will take gold. Having seen her volley with her students, my only thought is one of sympathy for whomever she is playing. Being on the Chinese national team is no joke and, although she may move a tiny bit slower than she once did, Lily at 59 is fearsome with a paddle in hand.
She had always been a remarkable talent in table tennis, starting her professional journey at 17. In 1987, she made her way to the United States, eventually becoming a citizen in 1991. From there, she embarked on a star-studded career as a player, coach, and tournament promoter. Her achievements included competing for Team USA in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games, securing four medals across three Pan American Games, and clinching numerous US National Table Tennis championships. Lily Yip’s got game.
Lily finds fulfillment in helping others learn the game. “I sort of retired from playing professionally after working with the US Olympic team in 2016, so I could focus more on coaching. However, once I crossed the age of 50, my students started urging me to participate in the Senior Games. They believed it would inspire them to perform better, and they might not have gone if I hadn’t joined,” she explains.
Although she acknowledges some of the changes that come with age, she still has the fire to be on the podium: “It’s a wonderful goal for me to continue playing a sport that I’ve adored since childhood. And let’s be honest, winning still gives you a fantastic feeling, doesn’t it?”
So, Lily, how old are you?
Going to turn 60 on August 22nd.
Where do you live?
I live in New Jersey now. Jersey City.
Where are you from?
When did you move to the US?
What was your background in ping pong in China?
I played 8 years as a professional player in Guangdong Province after high school. I was on the Chinese National team four and a half years when I was 17. I graduated from the Guangzhou Physical Education College at 23.
What is it about ping pong that you like?
It is a very social sport requiring many skills. It is also a lot of fun. It keeps the mind and body sharp.
How long have you been competing in ping pong?
Since 1991, Pan American Games. Before the pandemic, I competed in the Veteran Championship since 2018. I had just started competing in senior games — World Veteran Championship. That’s the first time it’s in Las Vegas, then second time was in China, 2019, then another one more is 2020.
“If I want to compete, I need to improve my physical condition”
Before that, I had stopped a little while.
How do you prepare for ping pong championships? What do you do? What’s your training?
Practice. Of course, practice on the table, drawing and game matches. Matches, practice. And also, if I want to compete, I need to work out my physical condition. I need to improve my physical condition.
How do you improve your physical condition?
Right now, I’m getting older, so I have to be careful. So, I want to focus on my lower body. At least, I can move. I can run a little bit, and practice it up and light weight practice, like dumbbells. That’s it. I don’t want to injure myself; I have to be careful.
How do you teach others to play?
I help students understand the basic techniques, footwork and shots, especially where there is spin. I hope to make them enthusiastic!
In what event will you be playing at the Senior Games?
Over-60 women’s single, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles.
What do you do when you’re not playing ping pong?
I have one grandson. I take care of him; it’s my happiest time. Also, I do coaching. I own a business, the table tennis club in Dunellen, New Jersey. And now in my golden age, my daughter and my son-in-law take care of the most coaching. I do have a master system coach to help me coach a lot of students, but I still enjoy doing some lessons.
What was your business when you were younger?
I was a professional player before I moved — immigrant to the United States.
Whoa. You were a professional ping pong player?
Yes, for eight years in Guangdong province. I was on a Chinese team four and a half years when I was 17 years old. So, eight years of professional training built up my strong fundamental basics.
Oh, my gosh.
That’s why I still play. And I came to United States in 1987.
So, at 17, you were on the Chinese national team?
Four years on the Chinese team, but eight years in the Guangdong province professional team. It’s a top A-team in the China. Top A. It’s pretty good, the Guangdong province team.
“A few of my students are over 60 years old and I wanted to encourage them to participate in the tournament”
Do you have any recent videos of you playing ping pong?
I have it. I can send it to you by email. But if you go to Google, I have won a few matches. I think there’s one final on 2018 in Las Vegas. That was the WVC, World Veteran Championship. Yeah, I do. But I will send it to you anyway. If you go to Google, you can google some. 2018. Somebody told me, “Oh, you’re in the google. You lost in the final.” So, I lost to the former Chinese teammates. She come to Las Vegas for the WVC championship.
So you are an elite senior ping pong player?
Yes. I find out about the Senior National Championships from my friend and my daughter. My late husband was in the Regional Senior Olympics in New Jersey. So, the level is my amateur level. So, I never thought I would play, but a few of my students are over 60 years old and I wanted to encourage them to participate in the tournament. So, I said, “Okay. I play double with you.” So, they feel like, “Oh, if I play double with Lily, I have a chance to win.” So, that’s the only reason I come back to play. The first time I played in a senior Olympic game in Florida and Fort Lauderdale.
So, I carry on with my students; they barely understand the game. They have only been playing two, three years. Then they gave me a mixed double partner from Tennessee, and USATT. I don’t know if you understand the USATT rating, but it was under 1,400 and considered a very beginner level. But I worked very hard. It was a good challenge for me. We won the gold medal with my girlfriend; my student, actually. Then we won the bronze medal with the guy I didn’t even know from Tennessee.
“Ping pong brings people together”
What is your ambition for the next senior game?
Of course, a gold medal for women single. That’s for sure. And helping the girl. One of the girls, she asked me to play women’s double for many years. She’s from Florida. Her name is Juliana and she said, “Ah, I want to play doubles if you ask me for a few years.” I said, “Let me wait for this year, the 2023.” I promised I play with her. So, that’s the reason. She’s passionate about the sport, but she is not a professional like me. Ping pong brings people together. Having friendships with the other people. I said, “Okay, I’ll play double with you.” So, my goal is still women’s gold medal.
So, the mixed double, I carry with one guy 70 years old. He’s my club’s volunteer, helping the club. Then he’s so excited. He said, “Will you play mixed double with me?” I said, “Okay, why not?” Make somebody happy, I play. I don’t care winning or losing the mixed double. When I compete, I still want to win. But I didn’t expect we can win the gold. Mixed double is difficult.
What is your ambition for the next 5 years?
- 1: Be healthy, happy and have good friends around. I want to continue to compete and keep my table tennis titles gold in my age groups (50 & 60) for women’s single, women’s doubles, and mixed doubles in US Open and US National Championship, in addition to the National Senior Games.
- 2: I’d love to learn another sport, like pickleball, and hopefully win some medals in over-60 women’s doubles or mixed doubles. It is good training for table tennis players.
- 3: Hopefully more and more seniors will get involved with table tennis and pickleball. I would like to be an ambassador for the sports I love!
What are 3 non-negotiables in your life today?
- I don’t put anything before the family.
- I will never surrender my independence.
- I will never stop learning in life.
Photos by David Harry Stewart.
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