Paddle to the Medal: 17-year-old table tennis player’s relentless chase to the top
The 2022 Sportsgirl of the Year’s journey to become a Team Singapore athlete was met with several challenges.
This story is part of Youthopia’s International Women’s Day series. We spotlight women who are excelling in their respective fields.
Trigger warning: This article contains brief mentions of eating disorders.
In the world of sporting, capturing a title is an impressive feat – let alone capturing two within the span of days.
National paddler Ser Lin Qian did just that at 16 years old, when she earned both the U17 and U19 Girls’ Singles titles at the 2022 World Table Tennis (WTT) Youth Contender in Metz, France.
But she didn’t just achieve that under any regular circumstances. Lin Qian had to overcome her opponents without her coach at courtside.
“When we arrived for the competition, my coach caught COVID-19. She wasn’t able to be at the back coaching me as she was quarantined in the hotel room throughout the whole competition. So it was a challenge for me because I had to play on my own.”
Lin Qian attributes her stellar performance at the competition to her composure and support from teammates. “I just told myself that it’s okay. I tried not to let it affect me because I know my coach will be supporting me no matter where she is,” she recounts.
While navigating a whole competition without her coach may already sound like an insurmountable task, it is just one of the many obstacles Lin Qian, now 17, had to overcome in her chase over the past decade to become a national athlete.
Her journey in the sport started way back in 2011, when she was just five years old.
Introduced to the sport by a friend training at a Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) zone training centre, Lin Qian’s mother then decided to sign her up for the classes at the Clementi Zone Training Centre, with the intention of strengthening her immunity through physical activity.
She was also attending ballet and Chinese dance lessons then. After a while, she found it “hard to juggle” between the sport and the dances, as there was not enough time. Following some difficult deliberation, she eventually chose to focus her time on table tennis.
Her then-coach had seen the potential in Lin Qian and encouraged her to continue with the sport.
As though her coach had peered into a crystal ball, Lin Qian secured her first championship victory at just eight years old in the Nurture Cup.
“That was a turning point where I was like ‘Wow, I really enjoy it’,” she recalls.
“I decided I should train more and take it more seriously. And maybe it can really be like something that I want to pursue.”
The tough decisions didn’t just end there.
Upon graduating from Nanyang Primary School, Lin Qian was met with another crossroads – which school to pursue her secondary level education in.
She had to consider her parents’ wish for her to study in Nanyang Girls High, the peer pressure to select Raffles Girls’ School, and an arguably “obvious” choice of Singapore Sports School. While many of her friends chose Raffles Girls School, her desire to someday represent Singapore at the major games gravitated her towards the Sports School.
“I knew that the Sports School would support me in many ways. If I have to go overseas for competitions, they will actually have a plan to make sure that I don’t fall behind,” she shares.
However, even with the Sports School’s robust training programme, Lin Qian wouldn’t exactly equate her time there as smooth or easy.
The days were jampacked, with classes running from 8am to 2.30pm before training sessions from 3pm to 6pm. An hour of dinner provided a brief respite before training would resume at 7pm and last till 9pm.
Amid the hectic training schedule and rigour, Lin Qian’s young and promising career almost came to an abrupt end. In her second year at the Sports School, she developed an eating disorder which would put her future up in the air.
“It actually started with just going on a diet. My coach had reminded us to take note (of our weight) in case there’s too much pressure on our knees…It started very innocently, so I just cut down on bubble teas and ate less, which at first, worked out well.
“But somehow, I had no idea what happened… and I ended up in a difficult situation.”
The days following the disorder were tough. There were times she fainted and got admitted to the hospital. She was unable to train like before and was robbed of opportunities to compete overseas.
Self-doubt began creeping in, chipping away at her faith and resolve.
Lin Qian recalls questioning herself: “Am I able to recover and am I able to continue pursuing table tennis? It really didn’t feel like I could.”
Thankfully, with the love and support of her parents, coaches and friends, Lin Qian was able to bounce back stronger. Slowly but surely, she made a full recovery and was able to get back on her road to the major games.
While it was a dark time, Lin Qian would look back and draw strength from the experience. Through it, she had learnt to be kinder to herself and to rid the self-expectations of being perfect.
“I have to say, I’m actually not a very positive thinking person since I was young. So I tend to think of things in a negative way.
“So (there was) definitely a lot of self-doubt, and no self-confidence. It only became much better in these recent years.”
Since then, she has made significant progress in her career. This includes the monumental milestone of being promoted to the national team from the intermediate squad in early 2022.
“…a few years back, I saw my seniors Xin Ru and Rui Xuan being promoted to the national team.
“That was when I was very motivated as I had always looked up to them…So when I eventually heard the news, I was very happy. And it really spurred me on to train even harder.”
But the icing on the cake was being crowned the Sportsgirl of the Year at the annual Singapore Sports Awards in the same year. During her acceptance speech, Lin Qian gave credit to her mother, calling her the “strongest pillar of support” and her “greatest strength”.
“I got emotional when I thanked my mum because I know she has been supporting me a lot, maybe more than what I even know…because she immigrated here, so she might have faced many difficulties transitioning. So I’m just really glad that I could really do my best and prove to her that what she has gone through is actually worth it,” she explains.
Even with the promotion to the National team and the multiple accolades, Lin Qian had a lot more to prove. While her sights are set on representing Singapore at the major games, she is still working on getting familiar with adult competition.
Unlike youth competition, she shares that the adult opponents are more experienced. “You just have to prepare more – mentally, physically and technically – to actually be able to play with them.”
Lin Qian now spends 30 hours a week training at STTA and finds herself focusing more on technical training. The technical training includes multi-balls, doubles matches and competition simulation.
While training tempo has increased significantly to adjust to the new demands, her love for the sport remains unwavering. She is staying laser focused on one thing – her end goal. “My goal is to represent Singapore in major games, and that will never change,” she says.
Recognising that she has more on her plate and big shoes to fill, Lin Qian has made an intentional effort to pace herself and manage her own expectations.
“In today’s world it is very competitive. And everyone wants to be the perfect one. To be honest, I think there is no definition of perfect.
“…Just find what you are capable of and what you excel in. And believe in yourself and…not be affected by the words and comments of other people.”
As for those hesitant to take the first step in chasing their dreams, she has the following advice:
“If they really want to do it, just do it and not take (in) too much of other people’s comments or any stereotypes…do what you enjoy and just leave no regrets.
“And eventually, it’ll be worth it.”
Lin Qian will represent Singapore as one of the wildcards at the Singapore Smash from Mar 7 to 19. She will compete in the Women’s Singles Qualifying and Women’s Doubles Main Draw.