Ariel Hsing was eight when she wrote down her Olympic dream on a piece of paper. She rolled it up, wrapped it with a string and tucked it into a small box.
“I said something along the lines of I wish to become an Olympian one day,” the 16-year-old Californian recalled. “Then for eight years, I convinced myself that if I opened the piece of paper and read it, my wish could not come true.”
She didn’t and it did.
Hsing will represent the US in table tennis at the London Olympics and she’ll be going with two other Californians who are even younger — 16-year old Lily Zhang and 15-year-old Erica Wu. The lone men’s representative will be Tim Wang of Houston, Texas.
Hsing has suddenly become a celebrity in a sport that gets scant attention in the US.
For starters, she is buddies with billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, close enough to call them “Uncle Warren” and “Uncle Bill.”
A table tennis buff, Buffett met Hsing when she was only nine and already a top youth player. Two years later, he invited her to play against shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. She has returned several times, including last month after winning a spot on the US team.
She faced both Buffett and Gates this time.
“Of course Uncle Warren and Uncle Bill have won points against me,” she said in an interview. “They’re actually pretty good, a lot better than the average person I would say.”
In an annual letter to shareholders, Buffett wrote of his first experience facing Hsing.
“The week I turned 75 I played Ariel, then 9 and barely tall enough to see across the table, thinking I would take it easy on her so as not to crush her young spirit. Instead she crushed me,” he said.
In an e-mail, Buffett said he had hoped to go see her play in London, but will be having treatment that week for prostate cancer.
Buffett said he was struck by Hsing’s “modesty, discipline, friendliness, and focus.”
Asked if he ever won a legitimate point off her, Buffett replied: “Perhaps one, but she set me up for it.”
Ariel’s father, Michael, has been juggling dozens of interview requests and one US television network is filming a documentary about her.
Despite the sudden fame, she sees herself primarily as a junior at Valley Christian High School in San Jose, California. She just attended the junior prom and her attention is on college entrance exams and a goal of being accepted at Stanford University to study business.
“I don’t think I’m famous at all,” she said. “People at my school recognize me. They say: ‘You’re the ping-pong girl.’”
Hsing offers insight into a game now ruled by Asians, and Chinese in particular. Americans in the 1930s and 1940s were briefly among the best, a period when central Europeans held sway.
Hsing developed a love of table tennis from her father, who emigrated 25 years ago from Taiwan, and her mother, Xin Jiang, who came to the US a bit earlier from China’s Henan Province.
They trained as computer engineers and Ariel said she started playing at seven, fetching balls for her parents in matches at a local recreation center.
“The first year I could beat her,” Michael said. “After eight, I could not.”
China have won 20 of 24 gold medals since table tennis entered the Olympics in 1988 and are expected to win all four gold medals when the London Games open on July 27. The five top-ranked players in the world — male and female — are all Chinese. Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Germany fill out the other top 10 spots.