Longevity in sports is not easy. Those who manage to stay in the game for a long time have to maintain fitness and motivation consistently over an extended period. But even by the standards of the longest serving sportspersons, the story of Ni Xialin is incredible.
The fact that she would be playing in the 2020 Olympics at the age of 57 itself is quite amazing. But what is an even more eye-popping fact is that she had reached the pinnacle of her sports 36 years ago. Yes, Ni is no ordinary table tennis player. Chinese by birth, she won two gold medals in the 1983 World Championships.
In those days, table tennis wasn't part of the roster of sports in the Olympics. World Championships were the peak of competition. Ni managed to win a gold in the mixed doubles as well as women's team event in 1983. Xialin was only 20 years old at the time.
In 1986, she left China and moved to Europe for studying. While being in Luxembourg, she was invited to coach the players there. But, being just 26 years-old at the time, she was more than just capable of coaching. It was realised that Ni had a lot of table tennis left in her. So, she ended up representing Luxembourg in Olympics.
2000 ✅— Olympic Channel (@olympicchannel) September 4, 2019
The 1983 World Table Tennis champion Ni Xialian has qualified for her FIFTH Olympics, where she will compete in Tokyo at the age of 57!
Read more about her incredible story ? https://t.co/4WElx2PIzr
? @ittfworld ? pic.twitter.com/pca14N97eL
It was in 1988 Seoul Games that this sport made its debut on the biggest sporting stage of the world. Bu the China-born player had to wait till the Sydney Olympics to make her debut in the quadrennial event.
Speaking to the Olympic Channel, Ni revealed what took her from China to Luxembourg. "In China there was a very high level of competition. I wanted to go study, I didn't want to waste time for this. I came to Luxembourg, but I never thought about 'I want to play in the Olympics.'
"It was my goal at one time, but I never thought I could make it. Luxembourg wanted me to coach! I was 26. Then they realised I could play, and I too realised I could still play, so I just continued playing and after ten years I was really good."
In the run-up to the 2000 Olympics, she was having some success. "In 1998 and 1999 I was world number four and in 2000 I was number five in the world, it was a very exciting time," she said in the same interview.
It was at the age of 37 that Xialin made her Olympic debut and reached the pre-quarterfinal stage. Most would have thought that this is her first and last appearance in the biggest sporting extravaganza. But the lady was far from done with the sport. She continued her career despite becoming a mother to two children and participated in every Olympics since 2000 except the 2004 edition in Athens.
Ni managed to win the bronze medal in the last European Games which secured her qualification for the Games in Tokyo. Despite age not being on her side, she is optimistic about her chances. "Never say never! It's about enjoying it. The younger players are better, they have more power and energy. But I'm very happy to have this opportunity to take part."