A Teenage Ai Fukuhara | Before They Were Superstars


(BEFORE THEY WERE SUPERSTARS) (AI FUKUHARA, AGE: 16
DATE: FEBRUARY 2005) (SPORT: TABLE TENNIS
LOCATION: AOMORI, JAPAN) Situated at the
northern tip of Honshu, the biggest of
Japan’s four main islands, is the city of Aomori. Back in 2005, a 16-year-old Ai
was living and training here. Ai began playing table tennis
at the age of three. Too small to see over
the table, she would stand on
upturned rubbish bins and hit against older players. Ai made rapid progress
in the sport and when she was 11, she became the youngest player
ever to be included in the Japanese national team. At 16, and ranked 23rd
in the world, she was even being hailed as “The Tiger Woods of
table tennis”. I’m no such thing. Tiger Woods has achieved
such a lot, and there’s been
so much written about him. He’s a great person,
and I feel sorry for him if they compare me to him! I have been playing ever since
I was a little girl. I don’t spend too much time
thinking about why I play, I just do. In 2003, Ai made her
breakthrough on the world stage when she reached the
quarterfinals of the World Championships, before losing out to
the then world number one, Zhang Yining of China. I was fortunate to progress
to the last eight. Next time, I don’t know
how far I can go. I want to play like
it’s my first time again. Ai practised for
six hours each day after going to school
in the morning. Her training sessions
were supervised by two female Chinese coaches. Her dad, Takehiko,
was never far away either, offering his own advice. At 16, Ai was already
fluent in Mandarin, and was planning to move
from Japan to China to play in the
Chinese Super League. It was hoped that the move would help her development
as a player. The playing conditions in the
Chinese League are different. There’s a lively atmosphere,
and it’s noisy. It’s going to be difficult
for me to adjust. I hope I become a more
consistent and competitive player. Chinese players
have great skill, and are the best in the world. There are some pretty decent
European players out there too, but the top of the rankings is
filled with players from China. It will be a great experience
for her to be playing amongst them. At this stage of her career, Ai was attracting
a growing army of fans. She had been voted by
Japanese children as their favourite sportswoman. It’s great that
I have many fans, but I don’t like to be
the centre of attention. Sometimes I run away
from people. Ai has gone on to become one of the most
recognisable faces in Japan, and is also hugely popular
in China.

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