NI Xialian: Meet the 57-year-old record-breaking table tennis player who'll create history at Tokyo 2020

Table tennis player NI Xialian from Luxembourg during a match against Azerbaijan in the European Championship qualifiers. At the age of 57, she is qualified for Tokyo 2020.
Table tennis player NI Xialian from Luxembourg during a match against Azerbaijan in the European Championship qualifiers. At the age of 57, she is qualified for Tokyo 2020.

The experienced Olympian from Luxembourg secured her Olympic qualification spot last year - 36 years after she claimed her maiden world title in Tokyo. Xialian spoke to Tokyo 2020 about the match that will send her to her fifth Olympic Games, and why her experience doesn't always help produce results.

"If you want to talk about this match, I feel like jumping everywhere."

When it comes to Tokyo 2020 Olympic qualification, NI Xialian struggled to contain her emotions.

"I had so many tournaments, I won so many games and this is one of the most exciting matches in my life," admits the 57-year-old in an exclusive interview with Tokyo 2020.

"It’s so big! Imagine… It takes me to Tokyo! Wow!"

The match Xialian refers to was her last from the 2019 European Games in Minsk, Belarus. The competition delivered just three qualification tickets for Tokyo: one for each medallist.

It meant that at the age of 55, Xialian had to be among the top three table tennis players in Europe - where there are already "so many talented players" - in order for her to reach her fifth Olympics after Sydney 2000, Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Ni Xialian: From Tokyo 1983 to Tokyo 2020
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In 1983, Ni Xialian was a 20-year-old Chinese table tennis player. She won gold in the mixed doubles and women's team events at the World Championships in Tokyo. Next year in 2020, she will return to the Japanese capital, as a 57-year-old representing Luxembourg in her fifth Olympic Games. She tells Olympic Channel her story.

"It was an impossible mission!"

After losing against FU Yu from Portugal in the semi-final (who would eventually go on to claim the title) Xialian had to face YANG Xiaoxin from Monaco, who was 25 years younger than her, in the bronze medal match.

Although Xialian has been a firm fixture in the world's top 100 for the past 20 years and was ranked no. 41, a small problem remained: she had never beaten the player before and seven months earlier, she had lost to her 4-0.

"For me, that was an impossible mission!" she explained. "It was a mountain too high [to climb]. But I had the courage and I wanted it so much."

Despite winning the first set, Xialian lost the following two. That mountain turned out to be even higher than expected.

But Xialian never gave up. Losing while not giving your all is not an option.

"Better to stay home," she said, frankly.

Xialian won the next three sets and went on to win the match - securing her ticket to Tokyo 2020 in the process. It's the ticket that made history, as she'll become the oldest table tennis player at the Olympics - 21 years after her first Games and 38 years after she won her two world titles in Tokyo in 1983 (in the single and mixed double event), where she competed as part of the Republic of China's national team.

It’s like a computer, you need to download a new program!

Experience is not enough

Common sense suggests that experience plays a decisive part in these tricky situations, where mental, physical and technical ability combine together. But according to the mother of two, even if experience comes with age, it's not automatic nor enough.

"Experience is useful but it does not come automatically," said Xialian, who left China for Europe in 1989. "It’s like a computer, you need to download a new program!

"The experience of 30 years doesn’t work. I had lost against her 0-4. So where was my experience? Where was my confidence? Where was my courage? And all the other details? You need to take the right decisions and have a technique that actually works.

"I’m happy that this time it worked well," she added.

"Give the smile back to the people"

Xialian will return to Tokyo for the biggest event in the sporting world - a country she had fallen in love with long before table tennis was even an Olympic sport (it made its debut in Seoul 1988).

"I visited Japan for the first time in 1979. I had very good memories. People were very friendly and nice. They are very very welcoming and vibrant. They are very polite and creative. You fall in love so easily."

"I won the World Championship [in Tokyo] in 1983. I’d love to go back. I want to give my smile back to the people."

Good relationship with the younger generation

Even though Xialian trains most of the time at home with her husband and coach Tommy Danielsson, a two-time European singles champion (1998, 2002), likes to share her experience with the younger generation.

"It’s a good and interesting relationship. They listen to many of my stories. I play different roles with them: I’m a mummy, a sister, an auntie, a teacher or a coach."

For her, spending time with young people is not a problem. Even if her life is full of other responsibilities like managing a hotel with her husband in Luxembourg, looking after her children of 17 and 28 - as well as her 89-year-old mother who she lives with - being among a relatively young and competitive environment comes naturally.

I am at this age

but my heart is very young.

The longest match in modern history

Her longevity in the sport deserves admiration, but the Olympic record Xialian will set at Tokyo 2020 will not be her first.

In 2017, during the ITTF Austrian Open, Xialian had a draw against the 18-year-old Japanese player HASHIMOTO Honoka - an up-and-coming star who was ranked 13 in the world - in the last 32.

The match got underway as normal but it turned out to be anything but. It became the "longest match in modern history," as the European Table Tennis Union confirmed, with it lasting one hour, 32 minutes and 44 seconds.

It was a match where stamina is decisively important, especially since her opponent had been known for being a her defensive-style and so Xialian had to constantly attack.

"I had to be aggressive all the time and keep my head clear," recalled Xialian. "She had seven match points and she was leading 3-2 with six match points [in the fifth set], but she didn’t win.

"In the seventh set, I had five match points. She also had one match point at 16-15 for her. But I played super good and won 18-16.

Happiness, more important than the result

Next year in Tokyo, Xialian will set a remarkable record by being the oldest table tennis player in Olympic history. But she still has weighty ambitions despite acknowledging her own limitations.

"You always wish for the best result. But with reality, at my age and with my style, I have limitations."

"We cannot go against nature. I know my weak points - I’m small [1.57m], I don’t have so much spin, I can't make table tennis more physical. But I have my advantages. I love the game and will never give up. I also have my high degree ball [a move] which is not easy for many players. I'll try to make the best result out of it."

When asked if a medal is an option, she does not push it aside. But according to Xialian, what is most important lies elsewhere.

"Of course if I can get a medal, it’s fantastic! But at the least I want to bring positive energy and a fighting spirit to show the world how table tennis can be beautiful."

"As a player, you can give so much happiness to people. That is sometimes even more important."