Q: All we’ve seen of Jing Junhong is her wielding her paddle. What’s another side of you we don’t see?
Jing Junhong: I can wield a wok too—I’ve been told I’m not a bad cook and I often whip up Shanghainese food (Shanghai is her hometown). My biggest fan is my husband. Come to think of it, I’m sure he sings my praises to keep me in the kitchen! He’s afraid I won’t feed him.

Q: You are now ranked 12th in the world (by the International Table Tennis Federation). How did you get this far?
Junhong: Determination has brought me through all the tough times. And some talent, I suppose. I was spotted quite late – at age eight – when other kids had already been training seriously for at least two years. Unlike parents these days, mine (a teacher and an engineer) were quite laid-back. They didn’t even attend any of the competitions I took part in during my first two years of serious playing. They were more concerned that I obeyed my teacher in school.

Q: You’ve come under attack many times for being China-born, yet representing Singapore, particularly during the recent Olympics. How did you handle that?
Junhong: It’s my 10th year in Singapore and I’ve sacrificed quite a bit of my life for my achievements. But I did not get here on my own. I’ve been helped in many ways by many people. My sacrifices have been made alongside the sacrifices of other Singaporeans such as coaches, sponsors and supporters. So, if the detractors want to deny me my dues, they are also denying these other Singaporeans all that they’ve invested in me. Now isn’t it a contradiction?

Q: You managed to get a lot of people excited about table tennis. How does it feel to be such a major attraction?
Junhong: I get recognised a lot more—in the market, at the bakery. Once, two aunties came right up to me and said how much I looked like the table tennis player on TV. They stopped me, looked me over and compared notes, but decided I was not Junhong. The one on TV was too fat and squat, they said. I stopped short of laughing out loud! We athletes are not like movie stars. Put us on TV and we fill the screen. Yes, we should just stick to playing the game!

Q: You list motherhood as your second occupation. What has it been like so far?
Junhong: There’s nothing like being able to hug my son after a bad game. Before Meng Huen came along two years ago, a bad day at practice meant a bad day at home. But now, I have a life outside the sport and I’ve learnt to cope with pressure a lot better. So what I missed a few shots in the game or at practice today? My son still welcomes me home with open arms. Motherhood agrees with me and I’d like to have one more child before I’m too old.

Q: With such a tight schedule, how do you make the time for your baby and your husband?
Junhong: Simple. I drop everything right after I get home. I dump the equipment and take off with my family. My baby gets my undivided attention and we do what he wants. Mostly we go for an evening stroll in the park, walk around the shops or play with his toys.

And if my husband is free, we do some shopping or eating in Johor. That way, we get to spend some time together and talk. It’s an important part of our marriage. It’s also my way of winding down.

Q: Training is tough so what are some of the little luxuries you enjoy?
Junhong: I don’t shop that much or buy expensive things, though I do treat myself to some trinkets now and then—like this cheap pair of blue shades. Trendy, don’t you think?

If I do have a weakness, it is for food—seafood. I’m not picky where I eat but I do like trying things everywhere. But really, the biggest luxury, as any working mother will tell you, is spending time and money on my son.

Q: You’ve had a great run over the last few years, but were there any low points we didn’t see?
Junhong: I’ve had my ups and downs and ironically one of the worst patches came after my son was born—I had problems getting back into the swing of things.

During my pregnancy, I followed my coach’s advice and took a year off. I spent those pregnant months stuffing myself silly. I didn’t even bother to work out. I put on 20kg, when normal women would put on just half of that. It took over four months to get back into shape—so you can imagine how tough it was.

When I resumed competitions, I kept losing games and missing shots. I thought I had lost it. I almost quit table-tennis altogether. But a sports psychologist helped me focus on my strengths and I got out of the slump.

Q: What motto do you live by?
Junhong: It sounds much more elegant in Chinese, but basically the saying goes that if you want to succeed, there must be sacrifice. Talent will only get you so far. You must be able to put in single-minded, focused hard work. I always tell my juniors, don’t worry about winning—thinking too much only clouds your judgement. Just focus on hitting the balls well and you’ll get there somehow.

Q: Who are your role models?
Junhong: Basketball star Michael Jordan and tennis champ Andre Agassi. Both left their careers at one point and came back on top of their games. I wouldn’t dare compare myself with them, but their determination and strength is something I could learn from. It can’t be easy to psych yourself up for the second wind.

Q: Your husband has been described as your pillar of strength. How did you get together anyway?
Junhong: Soo Han was a table tennis player. So was I. No guesses how we met. I was just 20 and still in Shanghai then and he was a visiting athlete from Singapore who was there for training. He was staying at my coach’s home that time and we met during Chinese New Year. I guess my coach probably took it on himself to play matchmaker.

Q: So how would you describe your soul mate?
Junhong: I’m the one with the temper and he’s the one who stays calm and composed—even if he’s excited inside. We both eat, sleep and live for the game. On bad days when I miss my shots, my husband knows how to dive for cover before I take it out on him!

It’s great that Soo Han and I speak a common language and he understands my fears and frustrations. He was my coach for a few years and that worked out quite well.

When players do badly, we sometimes can’t express how we feel. But with a husband who also happens to be your coach, things are different: He sees me day-in, day-out, hears me grumble on and off court and is better able to identify and correct the real problems.

Q: At 32, some people say you are at the tail end of your career. What do you say?
Junhong: It’s true that I’m at the wrong end of the age chart… But this is the time in an athlete’s life that should be treasured most. I believe I’ve just entered my golden age—when my body is strong and my experiences rich.

The maturity I have now is my strongest hand. My strategies are sounder and I’m more able to deal with problems thrown up in the game. I’m lucky my peers are still very much in the game—they may be way past 30 but still rank among the top 10 in the world, with babies and all. So, if they can do it, so can I.

MAKING OF A CHAMP

– Training: This takes up a punishing six hours each day – she starts at 9.30am – and it doesn’t include time spent at the gym!
– Naps: Champs also need their beauty sleep. Junhong has a little room at the table tennis training centre to nap in during lunch.
– Massages: It’s not a luxury but a necessity for her to recover from the intense training. Junhong gets her regular rub once a week, more if she is in the midst of competitions.
– Mental fitness: This is as important as physical strength, so a sports psychologist is on call to prep her mentality for a game, especially during the competitive seasons.

MILESTONES

1991: Came to Singapore from China to marry Singapore national player Loy Soo Han, and joined the Singapore Table Tennis Team
1993: Ranked 10th in the world and won bronze medals in the team and mixed doubles in the Southeast Asian Games
1994: Gave up her Chinese citizenship to become Singaporean
1995: Picked up another two gold medals and a silver at the SEA Games in Chiangmai. Collected another silver and bronze at the Commonwealth Championship
1996: Named Sportswoman of the Year by the Singapore Sports Council and the Singapore National Olympic Council, and made it to the quarter finals of the Atlanta Olympics
1997: Won a historic four gold medals for Singapore at the Commonwealth Games
1999: Picked up another two gold medals and a bronze at the SEA Games
2000: Fought through to the semi-finals and placed fourth in the Sydney Olympics