Ni Xialian: How 1983 world champion made it to fifth Olympics aged 56

Shanghai-born Ni moved to Luxembourg in the late 1980s. In an interview with the Olympic Channel, she tells us her story.

5 min By ZK Goh | 4 September 2019
Ni Xialian celebrating a win at Rio 2016 (Reuters)

Ni Xialian didn't imagine she would be playing at the Olympics.

It was 1983, and table tennis wasn't yet an Olympic sport. (It would make its Olympic debut five years later at Seoul 1988.)

Instead, Ni, then 20 years old, focused on the biggest prize in the sport at the time: the World Championships. She won two golds in Tokyo that year, in the women's team and mixed doubles events, representing China.

Fast-forward 17 years to 2000. Ni was still ranked among the world's best, and she finally made her first Olympic Games appearance at Sydney 2000. Only now, she was representing the small European nation of Luxembourg.

Another 20 years after that first taste of Olympic action, Ni will be back in Tokyo for her fifth Olympics. She will be 57 years young in July 2020. No-one else has competed at an Olympic table tennis tournament at that age.

It's been quite the journey for Ni, who was also named Luxembourg's flag-bearer at Rio 2016.

Ni spoke exclusively to Olympic Channel reporter Alessandro Poggi.

Asked to coach

Ni was born and raised in Shanghai, before moving to Beijing to continue her table tennis education, making the Chinese national team in 1979 aged 16.

Her crowning moment with the team came in Tokyo in 1983, but she left the team three years later.

"In China there was a very high level of competition," she tells the Olympic Channel. "I wanted to go study, I didn't want to waste time for this."

That brought her to Europe, and eventually to Luxembourg.

"I came to Luxembourg, but I never thought about 'I want to play in the Olympics'," she says. "It was my goal at one time, but I never thought I could make it.

"Luxembourg wanted me to coach! I was 26. Then they realised I could play, and I too realised I could still play, so I just continued playing and after ten years I was really good."

Olympic debut

"In 1998 and 1999 I was world number four and in 2000 I was number five in the world, it was a very exciting time," Ni says.

That form earned her an Olympic bow at Sydney, aged 37, where she reached the last 16.

"I was very excited. The Opening Ceremony, the Village, everything – it was very curious to me, I was like a little child!"

But a drop-off in her play after that meant she wouldn't attend Athens 2004. Not that Ni minded.

"I was very happy with my result (in 2000), and it was a nice experience," she explains. "But I thought, 'maybe that's enough now; one time is enough and I want to go back to my family'."

Return to China

Despite not qualifying for Athens and wanting to focus on her loved ones, Ni kept playing.

"I never [expected it]. Life went on, and I played and played."

An uptick in fortunes meant the then-45-year-old qualified for Beijing 2008, in her birth country of China. It would be an emotive homecoming for Ni.

"I left China and Beijing in 1986," she says. "After 22 years, I went back to Beijing, it was very emotional. China organised such a good Olympics," she adds.

It wasn't just the culture and return to familiar surroundings that got to Ni, though.

"Good food, too! Peking duck every day, it was wonderful."

Mother and carer

Ni's life away from table tennis? Being a mother to her children – aged 27 and 16 – and looking after her own mum, who she shares her home with in Luxembourg.

"I'm so occupied, I can't do too many hobbies.

"I have my 88-year-old mum living with me, I have two children, I'm also a wife, I'm a [table tennis] player, I have no time for myself," she says.

Her husband, Tommy Danielsson, is also her coach. Their children are fully supportive of her career, Ni adds.

"In 2012, my children came to London to see the Village and everything, they gained more knowledge of the Olympics and supported me playing. That's why I had to motivation to go to 2016."

So what's her secret to staying competitive after over 35 years at the top level?

"Peking duck," she laughs, jokingly. "It has a really good taste, I really love it.

"I think as a professional player, you have to take care of your weight - but not too much! If it's too much, life is too hard. But I made it a habit to eat more fish and vegetables."

Age has brought with it problems for Ni to overcome, but also its benefits.

"[My] sleep is not so good, you have injuries, you tire easily and don't recover easily. But with age, you have an advantage. You have to find [it], focus on what you can do and what you have."

Déjà vu in Japan?

At the European Games in Minsk, Ni qualified for Tokyo 2020 by winning the bronze medal in women's singles.

It means that next year, Ni will return to the city where she first announced herself globally in 1983. This time, it will be to play in the Olympics, rather than the World Championships.

"I will enjoy it very much. The people are so warm and nice.

"And it's also a nice memory for me," she adds.

There, she will have the wholehearted backing from her adopted country.

"I'm very lucky. I have a nice husband, nice family, and a good country. They give me full support – the Grand Duke, to the Prime Minister, all the Government, Olympic Committee, Federation, and even my neighbours.

"All the people support me and I feel very loved. It's a very nice feeling, I have so much motivation to play."

So, for a girl who grew up in China never thinking of playing in the Olympics, will Tokyo be her last Games for Luxembourg?

"Never say never! It's about enjoying it. The younger players are better, they have more power and energy.

"But I'm very happy to have this opportunity to take part."

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