By Anna Young
More than four years after arriving in Pleasantville, Kai Zhang has high hopes for his future. His plans are just a little bit different than when he first entered the country.
In 2012, Zhang’s life revolved mainly around table tennis. Today, the Pleasantville High School student’s ambitions are very similar to many of his classmates despite his immense talent with a table tennis racket.
“I’m a senior and I feel the pressure applying to colleges and taking my SATs,” Zhang said. “I want to focus on school more and pick a college that fits me, so I spend less time at the (table tennis) club and more time in school.”
Zhang was tapped at an early age to join the competitive world of table tennis in his native country. His limitless potential was recognized by coaches, and he was forced to drop out of school to pursue the sport full-time on a Beijing professional team.
While participating in a tournament at Pleasantville’s Westchester Table Tennis Center on Tompkins Avenue, Zhang saw a whole new world of opportunities. Upon his return to China, he began considering the best path for his future.
Zhang’s sole focus at that time was to practice table tennis and compete in tournaments, all in preparation for a run at making the 2020 Olympics. But Zhang quickly grew bored of the lifestyle he was forced to live back home.
“The competition in China is very hard and there’s very little chance to compete internationally,” Zhang said. “It wasn’t an easy decision, but I realized the U.S. had more opportunities for table tennis.”
A year later he moved to Pleasantville, moving into the house of Will Shortz, the table tennis center’s co-owner, after Shortz was unsuccessful in finding a host family.
Speaking no English and having been out of school for almost five years at the time, Zhang found different outlets to help him learn the language. Meanwhile, Shortz enrolled him at Pleasantville High School where he resumed his education.
“When I came here, the environment influenced me to learn English,” Zhang said. “People wanted to talk to me and I couldn’t talk to them.”
Despite a challenging freshman year, Zhang began excelling in his classes, formed a table tennis club, began giving private lessons at the table tennis center and became fluent in English – all while participating in competitive tournaments across the United States and around the world.
Now the 19-year-old Zhang spends more time hitting the books than the little white ping pong ball, acknowledging how he has significantly reduced his heavy practice schedule over the years to as infrequently as once a week.
But his decision has paid dividends. On Nov. 19, Zhang won the Jeanette Wang Scholarship Award, an annual scholarship given by the Westchester and Hudson Valley chapter of the OCA-Asian Pacific Americans Advocates to a high school senior of exceptional promise with a courageous life story.
This school year he has been applying to Harvard, NYU and Northeastern University, among other schools. Zhang intends on studying business or international affairs.
Despite having a more well-rounded schedule, he hasn’t abandoned table tennis or his dream of competing in the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Zhang has plans to apply for citizenship in 2018, then will take a year off from school in 2019 to prepare for the Olympic trials looking to land a spot on the U.S team.
Whatever the outcome, Zhang wants to finish college to pursue a life outside of table tennis.
“Going to (the) Olympics is my dream and I’ll keep working hard until I get there,” Zhang said. “But since I’ve come to the U.S. and received an education, I want to do other meaningful things besides table tennis and I want to find out what I want for my future in college.”
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