Lily Zhang Makes History With First U.S. Table Tennis Medal Since 1959

by Bob Reinert

(L-R) Lin Gaoyuan (China) and Lily Zhang compete against Emmanuel Lebesson and Jia Nan Yuan (France) during the mixed doubles quarterfinals at the 2021 ITTF World Table Tennis Championships on Nov. 27, 2021 in Houston.


Fifty years after the U.S. and China engaged in what became known as “Ping Pong Diplomacy,” table tennis players from both countries came together to form a pair of mixed doubles teams to compete at the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships Finals in Houston.
One of those teams — American Lily Zhang and China’s Lin Gaoyuan — reached the semifinal round Sunday at George R. Brown Convention Center.
Despite falling behind 2-0, Zhang and Gaoyuan rallied to tie the match at two games apiece before dropping the deciding game to Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto and Hina Hayata. The 3-2 victory by the Japanese duo unfolded 11-9, 11-1, 6-11, 8-11, 11-2.
Even with the loss, Zhang and Gaoyuan earned bronze medals for their efforts. Zhang’s is the first world championship table tennis medal awarded to an American in 62 years. The last was a men’s singles bronze medal collected by Dick Miles in 1959.
Another player making history was Kanak Jha, who became the first American to reach the men’s singles quarterfinals at the world championships since 1959. Jha and Wang Manyu formed the other U.S.-China mixed doubles team. They reached the round of 16, falling 3-2 to India’s Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and Manika Batra (15-17, 10-12, 12-10, 11-6, 11-7).
Harimoto and Hayata move on to face Wang Chuqin and Sun Yingsha of China in the gold-medal match, which was scheduled for late Sunday.
Zhang and Gaoyuan had reached the medal round with a quarterfinal victory over the French duo of Emmanuel Lebesson and Yuan Jia Nan 11-9, 9-11, 11-7, 11-7.
The Zhang-Gaoyuan and Jha-Manyu pairings harkened back to the U.S.-China diplomatic initiative that began well before either of them was born. It started at the 1971 world table tennis championships in Nagoya, Japan.
Zhang, whose parents were both born in China, has come a long way with the sport since beginning to play on a table in a laundry room. The 25-year-old has been a three-time Olympian, a Pan American Games gold medalist and a five-time U.S. national champion.

Bob Reinert spent 17 years writing sports for The Boston Globe. He also served as a sports information director at Saint Anselm College and Phillips Exeter Academy. He is a contributor to on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.