Tokyo: Australia’s Paralympic table tennis team hadn’t won a gold medal for 37 years, but they broke that drought in the most emphatic fashion on Monday evening as Lina Lei and Qian Yang managed to pull off the feat within an hour of each other.
On a remarkable evening in Tokyo, Australia’s table tennis team rejoiced in the victory of two teammates against their country of birth, both in quick succession.
Lina Lei won a gold medal for Australia in table tennis on Monday evening. Credit:Getty Images
First it was Lei, the former Chinese maestro, who sealed a thrilling victory against a former teammate in the women’s singles class 9 final.
Lei moved to Australia after the 2016 Rio Paralympics to improve her English and has rewarded her adopted country with their first gold medal in table tennis since Terry Briggs’ victory in 1984 in the men’s single C1 class.
It was also the first individual women’s Paralympic table tennis gold medal in history for Australia.
Australia’s only other gold medallists were Daphne Hilton and Marion O’Brien in the women’s doubles C class at the Tokyo 1964 Paralympics.
Lei, 33, beat world No.1 Xiong Guiyan for the gold medal, coming back from a set down to knock off her former teammate 3-2 in the final (6-11, 11-5, 11-5, 9-11, 11-5).
“I feel good because this is my first time to represent Australia to compete at these Games. I am proud,” Lei said afterwards.
“I don’t think about it [my opponent being from China]. I was nervous but I just controlled myself and managed myself.”
Lei was born in Sichuan in China before starting table tennis when she was five. Honing her craft in a country that is obsessed with table tennis, Lei became a World Para champion in singles and teams, before winning the first of her Paralympic gold medals in Athens 2004.
Before Monday evening, Lei had won five gold and three silver medals at the Paralympics across individual and teams events.
Born with a deficiency in her right lower leg, Lei was a force to be reckoned with between 2006 and 2014, where she won almost every medal up for grabs in her category.
She relocated from China to Melbourne four years ago and in doing so, switched allegiances.
“I wanted to learn English and I think I like the lifestyle, so I wanted to stay here,” Lei said.
She said her Aussie nickname was “yeah-nah”.
Next on court was Yang, who had already won a gold and three silvers for China at the London and Rio Paralympics.
Qian Yang of Team Australia competing on Monday.Credit:Getty Images
After winning the first game, Brazil’s Bruna Costa Alexandre hit back to pinch the second set but the adopted Australian, who is missing an arm, came through to win 3-1 (13-11, 6-11, 11-7, 11-9).
Australia head coach Alois Rosario was brimming with pride after the match, particularly following silver medals last week from Australian players Ma Lin and Samuel Von Einem to cap a golden tournament.
“It’s been a dream for the whole team this week,” Rosario said. “These tournaments there’s always the highs and the lows but for me we came in here with the real goal of unity and it’s just been magnificent to see that whole team do that.
“The silver medals we’ve already picked up with Ma Lin and Sam have been great and now for Lina to top it off with a gold, it’s a really good reward for all the people back home and within our whole squad.
“For Lina I couldn’t be prouder. She is an absolute champion. To be able to get through that match, she just seems to be able to find a way. She is mentally really tough and that makes the big difference in the end. Winning gold medals isn’t easy.
“I’m so proud of the program that is being developed in Australia, but also so proud of all the players that have gone before us and have paved the way. The coaches, the players that have set this up. It doesn’t just happen overnight.
“Certainly getting Lina into the program was a real bonus. She is such a champion, such a great athlete and such a nice person who has fitted so well into our squad and team. She is now able to pass on her knowledge and her experience of being able to win gold medals through the rest of the team and actually show them what it takes to get to that run.”
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