By TALES AZZONI, Associated Press
SAO PAULO (AP) — Gui Lin's parents thought she would start eating better if she played a sport in school, so she picked table tennis.
She was 7 years old when she made her choice. And it changed her life.
At 9, she left home to practice full time with a state team in interior China. At 12, she moved to Brazil to play the sport.
A few months ago, at 18, she earned Brazilian citizenship and made the country's national team. A few weeks from now, she will be fulfilling her dream of participating in the Olympics.
Nearly every big decision in Gui's life has been related to the sport she fell in love with as a kid, the sport she began playing because her parents wanted her to become healthier.
"I didn't eat well when I was younger. I was weak and always got sick," Gui told The Associated Press. "I had low resistance and kept having to go to the hospital. My parents thought that if I played a sport I would get tired and would start wanting to eat more."
Gui chose table tennis because it was something she used to play with her friends from time to time. It didn't take long before she realized she really liked it. And was really good at it, too. She enjoyed the sport so much that she felt good about making some life-changing decisions because of it.
Seven years after leaving her family behind in China, she says there is no doubt her choices are paying off — both in sports and in life. In addition to going to London for her first Olympics, she found a new place to call home.
"After coming to Brazil as a kid I started to get to know the country better," she said. "People always treated me well and eventually I got this passion for Brazil which made me want to compete for the country and to try to help the sport here."
Gui came to Brazil after a Chinese coach who lived in the country saw her playing during one of his trips back to China. He talked to her parents and invited her to come to Brazil as part of an exchange program to help develop table tennis. She was expected to stay only about a year but adapted so well that her parents allowed her to stay longer.
"I liked it here from the start," Gui said. "Right away I knew I would want to stay longer. I kept playing and traveling with the Brazilians and thought it was a good idea to try to play for Brazil, so I accepted their offer to help the sport here."
Brazilian table tennis officials were thrilled she wanted to stay.
Gui brought along her Chinese background in table tennis, something which has been key in helping the sport develop in the South American nation which has never won anything significant internationally with the exception of Pan American Games medals.
Having learned some of the techniques that make the Chinese the greatest players in the world, Gui is giving Brazil hope of a possible Olympic medal in the future. Success is not likely to come in 2012, but the goal is for the country to be competing for medals in 2016 and beyond, with either Gui or some of the other Brazilian players she is helping develop.
"She has been a great help to Brazil's table tennis," said Gui's coach, Hugo Hoyama, a Brazilian who will be in London participating in his sixth Olympics. "She learned the basics in China and that's important. She has great technique, great moves. But the most important thing is that she likes to help the others, and that's great for the sport in Brazil."
Hoyama, a 10-time gold medalist in the Pan American Games and Brazil's most successful table tennis player, said the experience Gui will earn in London will be invaluable for her own development and the future of Brazil's table tennis.
Gui admits that it would have been much harder for her to fulfill her dream of being at the Olympics if she had stayed in China, where the number of good players is incredibly higher. China's dominance in the sport is indisputable. The country won 20 of 24 gold medals since the sport was introduced into the Olympics in 1988.
With so many good players in the country, it's common for other nations without tradition in the sport to seek Chinese competitors to play in international competition. The European championships, for example, are usually dominated by Chinese-born players.
Gui, who is from the southern city of Nanning, wants to make it clear that it's different in her case.
"I'm against these players who go to the Olympics to play for a country that they've never even visited. Sometimes then don't even know anything about the country. This is just wrong," she said, speaking nearly perfect Portuguese.
Hoyama said most Chinese players are older when they earn a new citizenship and usually only travel to their new country during competitions, which is not what happened to Gui, who has returned to China only a few times but still talks to her parents almost daily on the Internet.
"It wasn't easy to leave home as a kid, it wasn't easy to change countries," Gui said. "But it was all worth it, definitely. The most important thing is that I'm doing something that I like, playing the sport that I like here in Brazil and going to my first Olympic Games."
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