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Five things to know about Puerto Rico's table tennis inspiration Adriana Díaz

The 20-year-old from Utuado is the top non-Asian women's player in the world rankings. Find out some facts about the Boricua superstar.
By ZK Goh

Puerto Rico's Adriana Díaz is the top-ranked non-Asian women's table tennis player in the world.

The 20-year-old, ranked 16th in the women's singles world standings at the end of March, was just 15 when she qualified to play at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, one of the youngest table tennis Olympians at that tournament alongside fellow-15-year-old Ito Mima of Japan.

Since then, she has gone on to make her mark on the sport, qualifying for Tokyo 2020 by winning the 2019 Pan American Games tournament – the first Puerto Rican singles gold medallist in the sport.

Here are some things you to know about this Boricua superstar from Utuado, in central Puerto Rico.

1. It's a Díaz family affair

Díaz's sister, Melanie, also plays table tennis, having won Pan American women's doubles and women's team gold alongside Adriana. Her father Bladimir Díaz is her main coach.

Speaking to the Olympic Channel Podcast in Spanish last year, Adriana explained: "In the beginning it was just about fun playing with the family.

"I started at four years with my sister Melanie, who is four years older than me, so did my other sister too, so it was always quite recreational, having fun.

"Later around the age of ten was where I began to think [whether] I wanted to take home-schooling or something to be able to have more time to train."

Having her father as her coach and travelling everywhere as a family could bring stress, but Díaz said it does not affect their relationship.

"Yes, there are times when my dad and I or my sister and I fight, but I think it's normal. My dad pushes me a lot, he knows what I can give and he always presses me to the end," she said.

"I think it is a beautiful union that we have, something that I would not change for the world, although we fight many times. I think my family has led to where we are today."

2. Díaz trained in China as a child

Puerto Rico is not exactly a hotbed of table tennis, and to get around it, Díaz and her father have visited China nearly every year to train since she was not yet eight years old.

"I went to China in 2008 for the first time," she explained. "I went with my dad. We understood that at that time it was very important to enter China, because obviously the best in the world are there.

"What better place to [start], than here with the best in the world? Since then, I have gone almost every year. I love China, for me it's an incredible country."

Díaz, who spent the end of 2020 and start of 2021 playing in the Chinese Super League as part of an invitational team of global players including Chinese Taipei's Cheng I-Ching and South Korea's Jeon Jihee, added she had learned a lot from her time in the Far East.

"Asian players have been practising this sport for many years; it comes from above, from the presidents [of the federations] who were players at some point.

"There are many, many players who keep coming out of Asia and they keep on coming and they are getting better and better, so it is very difficult to beat them. They are super disciplined, they are very fast, they are very intelligent playing.

"Table tennis has taught me many things," Díaz said. "Friendship, traveling, getting to know different cultures. It's something that has made me grow and also mature a lot."

3. Puerto Rico loves Adriana Díaz

From being an almost-unknown sport in Puerto Rico, table tennis now has a wide reach in Puerto Rico and Díaz has a high profile in her home territory.

Díaz was even named Puerto Rico's Revelation Athlete of the Decade last year, an impressive achievement given the status of the sport when Díaz was first starting out.

"Few people knew of it, many people called it simply ping-pong or [thought it was] something recreational," Díaz explained. "Now people know it as table tennis, and people see it as a sport.

"I never would have imagined being where I am now. For me this is a dream, because it's not very common that table tennis players come from Puerto Rico and are in the top 20 in the world.

"I feel that people in Puerto Rico believe in us, follow us, support us. Of course, in part I feel that I have to dedicate or show that I am playing this sport for Puerto Rico. I want to take it as high as I can.

"I believe in [the people] too, so because of the support they give me, so I hope to dedicate a lot [to the sport]."

In fact, Díaz is now so well known in Puerto Rico, that…

4. Daddy Yankee has contributed financially to Díaz's career

In 2018, the Díaz family was forced to withdraw from the ITTF World Tour Swedish Open and Austrian Open due to a lack of funding.

With Puerto Rico's National Olympic Committee and table tennis federation unable to contribute towards airfare for Adriana, Melanie, and Bladimir, in stepped reggaeton star Daddy Yankee.

He sponsored the family's flights to Europe, allowing the Díaz sisters to gain much-needed world ranking points.

"Daddy Yankee, amazing," Adriana recalled. "He helped me at a time when I needed him; he helped me and my sister, because in Puerto Rico things are not easy.

"Not just for athletes, but also for the country. We went to his concert, we met him, and he greeted us.

"He's an amazing person, a super humble person; a person with a good heart. And I thank him every day for what he did."

5. "Shy" Díaz dreams big

Díaz, who describes herself as "shy", has big dreams and hopes to follow in the footsteps of tennis player Mónica Puig, the first Puerto Rican Olympic champion.

"Adriana Díaz likes very much what she does, quite happy and above all very grateful to the family that she has," she explained in self-description.

"I believe that I am very lucky to have the family that I have, to have the life that I have and super happy above all things and a person who hopes that in the future she can achieve her dreams."

And what are those dreams?

"My short-term goal is to simply keep winning tournaments and also get to the top 10 once, I hope that will happen soon.

"In the long term, maybe I will win a medal at the Olympycs in Paris or Los Angeles. I don't know, but I am going to continue working towards that and it is my dream to bring a medal for Puerto Rico."