When Tom Feng arrived in the United States in 2006 at the age of 8 from Nanjing, China, he didn't speak a word of English. Within four years, he assimilated a new language, a new culture and a new school in Dallas, Texas.
And – oh yeah – he managed to win three U.S. Association of Table Tennis championships.
Today he's a member of the U.S. Olympic Table Tennis team. He didn't get there by accident.
In 2010, Feng moved with his family to Houston so he could train under coach Hui Wang, also from China, who had coached some of the country's top juniors. And he practiced. A lot.
“Every day after school and all day on the weekends," Feng says.
In 2013, after Wang moved to Atlanta to start the Atlanta Table Tennis Academy, Feng and his family followed. They settled in the suburb of Johns Creek during his sophomore year in high school to be near the training facility. And train he did – so much so that his Atlanta friends gave him a nickname: “Ping-pong Tom." He wore it with pride.
His dream was to compete as an American in the Olympics. But there was a problem: Without U.S. citizenship, Feng was barred from competing on the U.S. national team.
That all changed in 2015, when, at age 18, Feng finally became a citizen. He arrived at the U.S. nationals that year to dominate the competition and take first place. It was a very good year to win: Since the 2015 nationals were also a year before Rio, Feng didn't just become national champion, he also won himself an uncontested berth on the men's 2016 U.S. Olympic Table Tennis Team. His opponents had to fight it out for the other two spots on the team at the 2016 Olympic trials in February.
It was a seminal moment for Feng. After years of preparation, he had achieved his dream. And he did it in his first year of eligibility.
Feng is a shy young man, says Gordon Kaye, CEO of the U.S. Association of Table Tennis. He doesn't talk about himself easily – he prefers to let his playing do the talking.
“I didn't meet Tom until after he won the championship a year-and-a-half ago," say Kaye. “I was pretty surprised… I hadn't even heard of him."
After the championship, Kaye learned Feng had beaten Africa's No. 1 player at the 2015 Joola Teams Tournament – a pretty impressive feat for a relative unknown like Feng.
“But once you see him play you are not surprised anymore," Kaye added. "He's a very dominant player, very impressive."
Since then Kaye has gotten to know him better. “He's a fantastic young man. Smart, articulate, thoughtful and very driven." And he's very proud to be going to Rio as an American.
“I could tell the first time I spoke to him after he qualified that being an Olympian and representing the United States was important to him," says Kaye.
He's also a fierce competitor. Though Feng says he certainly enjoys the game of table tennis – the tactics, the focus, the feeling he gets when he knows he hit a shot just right – first and foremost, he loves to win.
“I always play for first place," he says. “It gives you honor. People look up to you when you are a champion."
Feng returned to China over the summer to train with some of the best coaches and competitors in the world. Besides some good workouts, he got some attention for his success.
“Table tennis stars in China are like basketball stars here in the United States," says Feng. That's why he's better known there, he says.
Feng plans to attend the University of Georgia in the fall where he hopes to study business administration. This summer, he trained alongside his U.S. teammates, 24-year-old veteran Timothy Wang and 16-year-old newbie Kanak Jha.
The three have a wonderful chemistry, says Kaye.
“Tom is very well liked by his teammates," says Kaye. “There's a great dynamic on our team right now – a really fun dynamic. And he's absolutely part of it."
Feng will compete at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Table tennis competition begins Aug. 6.