Northern Ireland’s Na Liu has been selected to compete for Great Britain at the London Olympics — 12 years after her father brought a team from China to compete in football’s Milk Cup!
Na’s father — a director of a football academy in his homeland — was so impressed with Northern Ireland that he made enquiries about his daughter coming from China to study English.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Na joined the Glenburn Table Tennis Club in Belfast and her ability — nurtured by coach Jing Yi Graham — immediately set her apart from local opponents and she became a regular at events all over the world.
“I'm excited, it's great and I'm really happy to get selected,” said the Chinese-born Na, who was informed of her selection before travelling for a three-week training camp in China.
Na has lived in Northern Ireland since 2001 and gained British citizenship in 2008.
She was raised in China's north-east province of Liaoning and started playing table tennis from the age of seven.
Ulster Table Tennis Development Officer Herbie Ross is delighted to see Na book a place at London 2012.
“It’s a great boost for the sport here,” he said.
“It was obvious from the start that Na was a top player and it’s great to see her ability rewarded in this way.
“I’m sure she will do very well,” he added.
Liu will be one of a six-strong GB team at the Games.
Team GB Chef de Mission Andy Hunt said: “I am delighted to welcome a full complement of six table tennis players as officially selected members of Team GB for London 2012.
“Both the male and female teams include a good balance of youth and experience.
“The likes of Paul Drinkhall and Liam Pitchford have demonstrated great potential at junior level, which bodes well for the future of British table tennis.”
Table Tennis team leader Jill Parker said: “This will be the first time that we will have competed in both the men's and women's team event.
“Our athletes have prepared incredibly thoroughly for this chance of a lifetime, and with home support, they are confident they will rise to the occasion.”
The Belfast player joins English national champion Joanna Parker, 25, and Kelly Sibley, who celebrated her 24th birthday on Monday, in the women’s team.
Joanna Parker said: “It's an amazing feeling. I was pleased with the selection because it was pretty tight between us.
“There's no secret — the table tennis is a really tough competition dominated by the Asian nations.
“Medal-wise, it's difficult. Realistically, we're just hoping to do the best we can and try and take our chance when we get it.”
Sibley won 10 matches in a row at the 2011 European Championships in Poland to help the women's team to promotion to the top tier.
Drinkhall, Pitchford and Andrew Baggaley comprise the men’s team.
Drinkhall, 22, recently broke into the world top 100 at senior level having enjoyed success at junior level, including three European junior titles and a silver medal at the World Junior Championships.
Pitchford, 18, won two medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Pitchford demonstrated his potential at the European Championships where he beat four players ranked in the world top 100, including world No 9 Vladimir Samsonov and number 20 Alexey Smirnov.
The men's squad is completed by the experienced Baggaley, 29, who has won five Commonwealth Games medals and is a three-time English men's singles national champion.
Drinkhall said: “It's a great achievement to be selected.
“It's a once in a lifetime opportunity to play in a home Games. I can only guess how it will feel but it's a fantastic opportunity.”