Hometown: Palo Alto, CA
Sport: Table Tennis
Zhang's favorite part of the 2012 London Olympics was the instant the Games began. "The moment you walk out into the stadium for the opening ceremony, you see all of the lights and people cheering," Zhang remembers. "It was magical."
But Zhang, then 16 and the third-youngest member of Team USA in any sport, was also shocked by the size and scope of the Summer Games. After losing her first match (the U.S. women also lost their team opener), Zhang started looking ahead to 2016, promising herself she would be better prepared for Rio.
Four years later, Zhang has interacted with more athletes, experienced different cultures, and gained maturity and experience. "I used to get really nervous before every match," Zhang admits. "Now I tell myself to take a deep breath and enjoy every second of the experience, even the butterflies." When she found she would have little time to practice as a freshman in college, she decided to take the year off in order to train six days a week — sometimes for six hours at a time.
In 2014, Zhang played in "the most nerve-racking match" of her life, winning bronze at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. "Being able to handle that [pressure] gave me a lot of confidence and motivation for Rio."
As Zhang's poise has improved, she has developed her tricky backhand (it's fast, but also controlled) and has continued to see results. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada, she earned singles bronze and helped the U.S. collect team gold. She then added a women's singles title at the 2015 North American Championships. "Being able to go out to these huge tournaments and to feel the pressure, and then handle the pressure, has taught me to trust myself a lot more, so I'm hoping for better results this time."
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images