Adriana Díaz’s mind races as she reflects on being named Puerto Rico’s flag bearer for the Youth Olympic Games starting Oct. 6 in Buenos Aires.
“When they told me, I couldn’t be happier,” Díaz said. “The other athletes are also very good, so when they chose me among all of them I felt very happy.
“It is an immense pride, and I can’t wait to be at the opening ceremony with my flag.”
It’s fitting that the 17-year-old emerging table tennis star will be entrusted to represent Puerto Rico’s delegation of 21 athletes. Her remarkable rise is largely rooted in her trust in her father, Bladimir Díaz.
He recognized her potential when she was just 4 years old. He promised brighter days after an adult laughed following three lopsided losses at a tournament in Sweden when she was seven years old. He elevated her play with frequent trips to table tennis academies in China. And he fostered her talent — along with dozens of others, including Adriana’s three sisters — back home at Club Águilas de la Montaña in Utuado.
“I never imagined all this was possible,” Adriana Díaz said. “I never thought I would be able to travel the world and play a sport I still love.”
Bladimir Díaz enjoyed playing ping pong, though he wasn’t all that successful. Also, he had limited knowledge about the game.
But he introduced it to his family, which featured four daughters. All were relatively talented, but he especially saw something special when Adriana picked up a paddle for the first time at the age of 4.
When she was 7, Adriana competed at the International Table Tennis Federation Swedish Junior and Cadet Open in Sweden. She lost every set and every match, including one in which she didn’t score a single point.
“One man laughed at me, and I started crying,” she recalls. “I got mad, but my dad told me, ‘You will get better, and you will get stronger.' I just trusted my dad.”
That process included a 15-hour flight to China, the hotbed of the sport. Chairman Mao Zedong named table tennis the national sport in the 1950s, triggering its immense popularity. According to a Business Insider report in August 2016, an estimated 10 million Chinese play competitive ping pong regularly while about 300 million play at least occasionally. That passion for the sport has led to startling results: China swept all four table tennis gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics and has won 28 of 32 gold medals since the sport’s introduction in 1988.
Bladimir Díaz figured there was no better place for his daughter to learn than in China, where there are tables in virtually every park. Adriana endured defeat after defeat upon arrival there.
Yet she wasn’t discouraged.
“I enjoyed it so much,” Adriana recalled of the challenging environment. “I had fun, so I didn’t really know what was happening. I was too little. When I lost, I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can win the next match.’ ”
Eventually, she did. Adriana also started to beat her dad.
During her month in China, Adriana also improved her endurance; some Chinese players reportedly train at least seven hours a day. Her father, meanwhile, spoke to Chinese coaches and picked up pointers to help with training and to better understand the nuances of the sport.
In September 2011, Adriana was ranked 1,126th in women’s singles.
HITTING HER STRIDE
But the breakthrough happened when she was 12 years old and became the Puerto Rican champion.
“At that time,” she said, “I thought I could be really good. I just started to play and travel, and I win all these matches, and I felt very confident with my game.”
By 2014, she cracked the top 200 of the world rankings and earned two golds and a silver at the Central American and Caribbean Games. She earned a team bronze at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Then, in April 2016, she made history: Adriana became the first Puerto Rican female table tennis player to qualify for an Olympic Games.
In Rio, she won her first preliminary match but lost in the second round to Li Xue, a Chinese-born French table tennis player who was a bronze medalist at the 2012 European Championships.
At the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games, Adriana swept all four gold medals in table tennis.
Her world ranking peaked as high as 33rd.
In August, Adriana upset sixth-seed Sofia Polcanova of Austria then topped the 10th seed to advance to the quarterfinals at the ITTF Czech Open, where she was defeated by the top seed, Kasumi Ishikawa of Japan.
ITFF president Thomas Weikert is well aware of Adriana’s potential.
“We need more international superstars like Adriana all over the world,” he told El Nuevo Día. “She can be an inspiration for all young players to aspire to succeed in their respective countries and regions.”
Asked about the bright future of table tennis in Puerto Rico, Weikert added, “We want Adriana and Brian Afanador to be the inspiration for a whole new generation of table tennis players across the country.”
By her estimate, Adriana has traveled to more than 50 countries — something she never imagined. But for all her travels and medals, she’s most thankful for her family. They still play against one another, although her big sister fares the best against her.
“She knows (my game) very well,” Adriana said. “But the other ones, I can beat them easily.”
She admits that her family wasn’t all that into sports, in general, so she marvels at how much table tennis has blessed them.
“We didn’t know all this would happen,” she said. “We just continue to grow as a family, and we continue to help each other. My mom always tells me, ‘You can do whatever you want to.’ If I want to study or do sports, she will support me. My family helps me in this process. They are the reason that I’m here.”
So Adriana cannot wait to carry Puerto Rico’s flag and to compete at the Youth Olympic Games.
“I know it’s going to be very hard,” she said. “There are many good players, but I know them, and I will try to do my best and hope to get a medal.”