The story of Ni Xialian, the 60-year-old member of Luxembourg's national sports team, and the oldest Olympic table tennis player in history, has gone viral on social media in China. "She's the pride of both China and Luxembourg," some netizens have posted. Ni, a former member of China's national table tennis team, and who moved to Luxembourg in 1991, has competed at the Olympic Games five times since 2000.
Passion, and Happiness
Ni, who was born in Shanghai in 1963, joined the Shanghai table tennis team in 1978. She joined the Chinese national table tennis team the following year.
During the 37th World Table Tennis Championships, in Tokyo, Japan, in 1983, Ni helped the Chinese women's team win the team title, and she also claimed the mixed doubles gold with her team member, Guo Yuehua. Ni also won the women's doubles bronze with her partner, Cao Yanhua.
Two years later, Ni and Cao won the silver medal in women's doubles during the 38th World Table Tennis Championships, in Goteborg, Sweden.
|Ni Xialian (left) and Sarah De Nutte pose with their bronze medals after the women's table tennis doubles final match at the European Championships Munich 2022 in Munich, Germany, on August 18, 2022|
Ni retired from the Chinese team in 1986, and she moved to Germany in 1989. She settled down in Luxembourg two years later. Her love for table tennis, however, didn't allow her to hang up the paddle. She began competing again, and she won her first European singles title in 1998.
Despite her age, Ni is Luxembourg's key table tennis player, and she has led the Luxembourg team to several European championships.
"I play a traditional Chinese fast-attacking game with a penhold grip, and I apply pimpled rubber on my paddle, which has a little bit of an advantage, especially as I have grown older. My style doesn't require too much strength and running in near-table play, and it makes it possible for me to play smart," Ni says. She adds the secret of her success is her long-standing passion for table tennis, and her use of wisdom during the fight.
In 2021, Ni ascended the podium at the World Table Tennis Championships for a record fifth time. She had paired with Sarah de Nutte to win the bronze medal in the women's doubles event in Houston, the United States.
When discussing her age, Ni says, "Now, happiness is the most important thing when I attend competitions. I enjoy competing in various games in different places of the world. I am not discouraged as long as I try my best. Of course, if I can get a medal, it's fantastic. But, at least, I want to bring positive energy and a fighting spirit to show the world how table tennis can be beautiful."
Ni has deep affection for her home country. "I was born in China, and I received systematic training in Shanghai, which nurtured my solid skills and overall capability. It's very important, and a lifetime treasure to me. I feel grateful for my home country. Without China, I wouldn't have achieved what I have … It's my honor to be able to stand on this world stage, showing Chinese people's talent," Ni says.
She is considered a "national treasure athlete" of Luxembourg. "I feel loved and needed in Luxembourg, and I think that is one of the important reasons for me to keep fighting in the international table tennis arena. Our team works very well together. I cherish the deep friendship with my team members, and I enjoy playing table tennis with them," Ni says.
Ni has competed in five Olympic Games since 2000. "I retired from China's national team in 1986. Since table tennis was not listed as an event at the Olympic Games until 1988, I missed the chance to fight for our country," Ni says.
Ni declined the invitation from Luxembourg to join the 1996 Summer Olympics, in Atlanta, the US. As the years passed, Ni had a change of mind. "I feel honored to compete in the Olympic Games, the world's biggest sporting event," Ni says.
|Ni Xialian competes during the 2022 ITTF World Team Table Tennis Championships Finals Chengdu|
She attended the Sydney Olympics in 2000, as an athlete of Luxembourg, kicking off her career as an Olympian at 37. It was also the Luxembourg table tennis team's Olympic debut. Ni has since competed for Luxembourg in four more Olympic Games — in Beijing, London, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.
She reached the third round at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and she lost in the second round of the 2012 London Olympics. During the closing ceremony of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Ni carried the flag for the Luxembourg delegation. She was the oldest athlete at the 2022 Tokyo Olympics.
|Ni Xialian and her husband, Tommy Danielsson, talk with each other during a break in the competition|
Ni says athletes who compete with the Olympic spirit always exemplify positive energy to spectators. "The Olympic spirit requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. In the Olympic community, we are all equal — regardless of what we look like, where we come from, or what event we participate in," Ni says.
When asked about the 2024 Paris Olympics, Ni says she will strive hard to make it to her sixth Olympics. She remains modest, and she is aware of the limitations of her body. "Time and tide wait for no man. I can't practice like when I was young. For me, the main thing is avoiding injuries or illnesses, and to keep improving myself. I've been to the gym to maintain my physical strength. Being able to beat opponents in an intelligent way will be a big, but meaningful, challenge for me," she says.
"My family, our table tennis association and people in Luxembourg are very supportive of me. I also have many fans. I'm particularly moved by the encouragement of Chinese fans. It's a great motivation for me, and the best way to repay that is to play my best."
Ni's husband, Tommy Danielsson, is her coach and training partner. He was the coach of Luxembourg's national table tennis team when Ni met him in 1991. "I never feel alone, as he is always there for me during various competitions," Ni says.
"My husband not only gives me technical and psychological support on the table tennis court, but he also takes good care of family affairs and plays a vital role in our big family. I am grateful for his love, understanding and support. He gives me the sense of security," Ni adds.
|Ni Xialian and her husband, Tommy Danielsson|
Danielsson hasn't been Ni's only source of professional support within the family; her son is a physical therapist, who offers her timely professional treatment, when necessary.
"I have a big, warm family, full of love and mutual support, which is the main pillar of my life. The harmonious family ties are a treasure to me. Table tennis is part of my life. I am not only an athlete, but I am also a wife, a mother, a member of my big family, and an entrepreneur. I put my family before my table tennis career, as I believe a happy family is the foundation of a good career," Ni says.
Bond of Friendship
"Even though I don't represent China anymore, I think representing Luxembourg is also meaningful, because we need communication between East and West. There are already a lot of Chinese athletes continuing their careers overseas, and I think it's good they build international friendships and lessen misunderstandings," Ni says.
She often attends various sports and cultural activities in Luxembourg. Through table tennis, Ni has built a bridge of friendship between the peoples of China and Luxembourg.
Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Luxembourg. In June 2022, Ni received the Luxembourg Government Commendation "Chavenlier" Medal (Oak Crown Medal), in recognition of her outstanding contributions to sports in the country.
"The medal represents Luxembourg's affirmation of me. As the first Asian to win the medal, I feel greater responsibility than before. I will continue to do my part to enhance the friendship between China and Luxembourg," she says.
As an image ambassador of Luxembourg, Ni says she will continue to promote mutual understanding and cultural exchanges between the peoples of China and Luxembourg.
"During table tennis competitions, I represent Luxembourg, and in Luxembourg, I represent the Chinese. I think that's very meaningful," she says.
Photos Supplied by Interviewee and VCG
(Women of China English Monthly May 2023 issue)
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