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As a youth, all Wang Qing Liang could dream of was playing table tennis in the Olympics for the Chinese National Team.

But now, the 17-year old is enjoying his time training in the United States and hopes to make his mark here and become internationally recognized.

“I just have the opportunity to come here and play,” Liang said through translator Wen Hsu, a co-owner of the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg. “It’s a new environment and refreshing.”

Liang, a junior player from the Shandong Lueng Table Tennis School in China’s northern Shandong province, moved to the United States on a visa in May to train indefinitely at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, learn English and attend school.

Last month, Liang advanced to the semifinals in the men’s singles of the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championships. Along the way, he defeated two 2012 Olympians in Team USA’s Timothy Wang and Canada’s Pierre-Luc Hinse.

“In China, I didn’t have this kind of chance to play in international competition,” Liang said. “It was my first tournament and I hope to have many more.”

No American athlete has ever won an Olympic medal for table tennis since the sport was introduced in 1988.

In the meantime, Liang, who trains nearly every day, is acclimating to American culture. He grew up in Guilin, a city in the southern Chinese province of Guangxi.

“My life is not much different than back in China because I was already living and training far away from home,” Liang said. “One thing I like about here is the clean environment, clean air and open green spaces.”

Liang is just one of many people — of all ages and abilities — to play recreationally or train seriously at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, which completed a renovation in April that doubled the warehouse facility to approximately 10,000 square feet and 16 tables. The Center is one of eight Maryland clubs, sanctioned by USA Table Tennis, five of which are in Montgomery County.

“When [the Center] was founded in 1992, there weren’t many places like it in the country,” said co-founder Larry Hodges, who coaches at the Center along with fellow USA Table Tennis Hall of Famer Cheng Yinghua, former Chinese National Team member Jack Huang and Jeffery Zeng Xun. Hodges won his 13th Hardbat doubles championship at the U.S. Open. “We wanted to have a place that thrived on private coaching and intense training as well as have an open community-type center. Now, there are more than 300 clubs around the country. This area, as well as San Francisco, New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles are the hotbeds for table tennis in this country.”

Nathan Hsu, 16, a rising junior at Richard Montgomery High School, is one of the more accomplished junior players at the Center. He moved from Connecticut prior to high school to further his table tennis development and enroll in the Rockville school’s international baccalaureate program.

Hsu also helped start Richard Montgomery’s after-school table tennis club. At the U.S. Open, he represented Team USA and made it to the quarterfinals of the junior boys team event.

“I was little when I started playing and over the years, I feel like the level of play of the younger players has risen,” said Hsu, who added his goal is to play in the Olympics. “D.C. is one of the hotspots for the sport.”

Lilly Lin, a rising sophomore in Poolesville, and her younger sister Lisa, 8, both started playing table tennis at the Center.

“I had a couple friends that played when I was 9 and I thought it was interesting,” said Lilly, who won the women’s under 2100 rated event at the U.S. Open. “She started about the same time I did and we both love it. We’ve really learned a lot by watching other players and copying them.”

Other notable performances from the U.S. Open, include Derek Nie, 11, of North Potomac, winning the 11-and-under boys singles. Charlene Liu of Germantown won the over-50 women and over-60 women’s tournament. Amy Lu, of Germantown, made the Cadet girls final. Crystal Wang, 10, of Boyds won the Cadet girls doubles championship. Fellow Boyds resident Chen Bo Wen, 14, made the Cadet Boys finals.

Several athletes that train at the Center also participated in the Junior Olympics in Houston earlier this week.

kzakour@gazette.net