Wu Yue, 26, has known for over a year that she was headed for the 2016 Rio Olympics. In fact, she was just the second American to join the current Olympic team.
Last July, Wu unexpectedly won gold in table tennis women’s singles at the Pan American Championships. Her victory cemented her spot in Rio.
“I was so excited about that,” Wu - who often goes by her American name, Jennifer - told NBC Olympics during a Team USA fundraiser in Dunellen, New Jersey. “I was crying on the bus because it was so hard to make the Olympics.”
That tournament was particularly good to Wu: She and compatriots Lily Zhang and Jiaqi Zheng also earned gold in women’s team. While Zhang and Zheng had to win their Olympic spots at the Table Tennis Olympic Trials this past April, all three will now compete in August’s Games.
Wu’s extraordinary journey from immigrant to table tennis Olympian could only happen in America. Born in Beijing, China, the table tennis star moved to New York City when she was 17 years old in 2008. As she adapted to a foreign culture, Wu taught table tennis lessons at the Wang Chen Table Tennis Club in New York City. (Club owner Wang Chen competed at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where she advanced to the quarterfinal round of women’s singles – the furthest any American has ever reached at an Olympic Games.)
Between classes, Wu took English as a second language courses and began assimilating into American culture. Soon, she began coaching a particularly famous pupil at SPiN New York: Comedian Judah Friedlander.
“She knew, I think, three words [when we met],” Friedlander told NBC Olympics. “She knew ‘table tennis’, she knew ‘ping pong’, and then I remember, ‘brain’. She knew the word ‘brain’.” (The New York Times had an extensive piece on the duo this past spring.)
Wu – who had been hesitant to see Friedlander perform for several years – finally caught the comedian at the Comedy Cellar about three months ago.
“[She] didn’t understand all my jokes, but [she] understood all my Donald Trump jokes,” Friedlander said.
Making a life for herself in America has been challenging for Wu. “I miss my hometown, my mom, my family,” Wu said. “[At first,] I called my mom every day, like two hours.” The two still speak daily, “just to make sure everything’s fine”. Wu sees her family when she trains in Beijing, just ahead of major tournaments.
But she has seen plenty of progress. Recently, Wu moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey – just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan. The immigrant enjoys the quiet and relative cleanliness of the New Jersey city. Wu also just obtained her driver’s license, and hopes to buy a car within the next year.
Wu acknowledges that, as major cities, New York and Beijing share some commonalities. “They’re both so big, with so many people, good food,” she laughed. The American metropolis has advantages: Less traffic, less air pollution, more freedom. “You can do just what you want to do, do everything.”
â??If I have a dream, or I have a goal, I just see that. ... I just start a new day and fight for it.â?
Just ahead of the Rio Games, Wu is excited to compete. But she acknowledges that going up against players from her home country will be difficult.
“Table tennis in China is like the NBA is the U.S.,” Wu said, explaining that training facilities over there feature world-class players. “Everybody loves table tennis, everyone has a table.”
Whatever the outcome, she has significant ambitions after finishing her table tennis career – whenever that may be. Wu plans to study English at college, and perhaps open a table tennis club for herself.
“It’s just my personality,” she said. “If I have a dream, or I have a goal, I just see that. ... I just start a new day and fight for it.”