China`s table tennis star Zhang Xiaoling refuses to rest on her considerable laurels or let a rare disappointment deter her from one of sport`s greatest dreams.
Zhang Xiaoling returns the ball in the individual class 8 match, which she won for bronze at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games on September 10, 2008. [xinhua]
Dubbed "the Queen of Table Tennis" and "the Ivy Tree" of the sport, 51-year-old Zhang has become the most successful paddler in Paralympic history after winning all individual and team titles of women`s class 8 competition in the past five Games.
Even though her winning streak was ended by Swedish player Josefin Abrahamsson in Wednesday`s five-set thriller semifinal, the hale and hearty mother has vowed to keep on fighting for greater glory.
She has even set a career goal of 100 gold medals, which is by no means unrealistic considering she`s already three quarters of the way there.
"I have already won 74 gold medals and I will make it 100 in about 10 years," Zhang told The Paralympian after winning the bronze medal match Thursday morning.
"I only count the titles in the major national and international tournaments."
In the right spirit of sport, she was gracious after missing the chance to defend her title on home soil.
"I was a little nervous during the semifinal and she (Abrahamsson) had better running and a strong attack. But the bronze medal is fine. Since I have ruled the court in the past 20 years, it`s time to let others taste the title," she said.
Zhang is confident about her ability to fight back though, and even for another decade. Sport has made her healthier than most able-bodied people, she believes.
"Age is not a problem for me. Thanks to daily training, I am in very sound physical condition," she said.
"Look at me, I have no gray hair and I look much younger than my age. I feel like I am in my 30s."
In 1978, Zhang`s right leg was amputated after doctors found a tumor.
Earlier, she had taken up table tennis at the age of eight, but quit in the wake of her heart-breaking illness.
When she read the news about the first National Games for Disabled Persons in 1984, she was inspired and started training again.
Zhang won her first national title after three years and made her debut at the 1988 Paralympics where she began her dominance of women`s class 8.
But years of hard training and competition cost her more than a dozen artificial legs and she has suffered a lot of pain adjusting to each new leg.
Now working as a researcher for a political consultative committee in Qinzhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Zhang can only train in the evening and her sessions normally last to midnight.
For almost six months a year, she is on the road for competitions at home and abroad.
"I love table tennis and I will feel empty if I quit," she said.