Meet the Shanghai Auntie Smashing Records, and Stereotypes
Nearing 60, Ni Xialian never imagined she would stand on a podium again.
Yet in November 2021, at the World Table Tennis Championships in Houston, U.S., that’s exactly what she did. Playing alongside Luxembourg’s only other professional table tennis player, 29-year-old Sarah de Nutte, the duo made it to the semifinals where they lost to the Chinese team.
But they did finish with a hard-earned bronze, thus earning Luxembourg’s first ever medal in the World Table Tennis Championships, and a podium finish for Ni, then 58.
Medals were nothing new for her though. At the 1983 World Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo, she won the mixed doubles for China with Guo Yuehua, then the world No. 1. She spent her youth with China’s national team, but following a bright, early professional career, suddenly disappeared from the public eye.
Ni eventually completed her studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and then moved to Europe, where she played professionally in Germany and the Netherlands. “I won championships wherever I went,” she says.
Eventually, she chose to settle down in Luxembourg, where she started a family, opened a hotel, played sports, and doted over her garden in her spare time.
She still appears on the international table tennis stage occasionally, though no longer at the top, beset primarily by her decreasing stamina. “If only I was just one year younger,” she often rues. “But it is what it is; you can’t fight nature.”
At the Houston Championships, her performance belied her age. In the women’s doubles match against China, Ni was the liveliest of the four, while her partner Sarah and the two young Chinese players across the table looked nervous.
Ni played well and openly expressed how happy she was after the bout, breaking out into a wide grin. Simply overjoyed to play at her age, she says: “I haven’t thought about having to get to the top again, nor do I have any goals. I’m free.”
For a long time, not only was Ni among the few table tennis professionals in all of Luxembourg — population 600,000 — but also one of the country’s rare representatives on the world sports stage.
Over the years, as generation after generation of younger partners came and went, she now likens herself to the mother of the team, pouring her heart and soul into helping her “children.” Over time, she has also broadened the possibilities for young table tennis enthusiasts in Luxembourg.
That was one of the most important reasons she continued to push back against time.
To help Luxembourg snag an Olympic berth, she previously competed at the 2017 Austrian Open, where she upset Japan’s Honoka Hashimoto — then ranked 13 in the world.
Their match lasted just over 90 minutes, and set a new record for the longest table tennis match in recent history.
Through it all, Ni wasn’t alone. The people of Luxembourg have also helped her heal, both financially and mentally. She grew up amid the rigors of playing for the Chinese national team, changed lanes and found another path for herself, and eventually, gained a sense of value and freedom.
Now a middle-aged “auntie,” she is also building a world for young people with the same ambitions as she once had.
This is Ni’s story as told to Wei Xiaohan.
A three-person triumph
I went to the World Table Tennis Championships finals in Houston with no objective in mind. Medaling was all but impossible, so it was just to see how far I could go. Our Luxembourg team had already made plans to spend a week in New York after the competition, but then we just kept winning and had to change our flight. Isn’t that funny?
The Luxembourg table tennis team comprised just three people: I’m like the mother; my husband, Tommy Danielsson is the coach and father figure; and my partner Sarah, who is the same age as my son, and ranks 76 in the world.
And we had only two players, the rules stipulate that we can play only in the doubles competition and not the team competition, which requires three players. We had to compete the day after arriving in Houston, before even getting over the jet lag.
We were almost an “amateur” team that couldn’t really compete with China, Japan, and other large national teams. For instance, the Chinese contingent numbered 50: head coaches, chaperones, translators, and even ball pickers. We didn’t even have a physical therapist, so the mental and physical toll was enormous. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t sleep.
But we just had to keep grinding. We won our first round in the women’s doubles. Then in the second round, we fell behind 2-9 in the tiebreaker. We were in great spirits and kept pushing forward, and ultimately getting the win was exciting.
Later, we played against Hong Kong, whose Doo Hoi Kem is ranked fourth in the world. We figured we’d keep trying, even though there was no way we could win, but that’s exactly what happened. It was in the quarters against India that we felt we had a chance to medal.
Near the end, I had to take some of the weight off my partner Sarah. She’s a smart girl but gets nervous really easily. At one point, she couldn’t even serve forehand. We had to swap positions so she could serve backhand. It was tough for me, but there was no other option. I understood her anxiety; you don’t want to be the person responsible for the team’s defeat.
I used to be like that. At the 1983 World Table Tennis Championships in Tokyo, my mixed doubles partner was world champion Guo Yuehua. I was over the moon to be paired with him, but I was also afraid of being the weak link. I had to work hard and play cautiously.
I still keep in touch with him. Once, I told him, “I’m so embarrassed that I wasn’t that good back then. Luckily, we won because you were. I was riding your coattails.”
During the match, I had to boost Sarah’s confidence. Mistakes didn’t matter, and I’ve never once blamed her. I just told her, “Don’t worry, you are doing well. Go out there and keep playing.” She eventually pulled herself together, which made me happy because it was an incredibly hard process for her.
Our semi was against China, which we had no chance of winning. I even heard spectators cheering for me in Chinese, saying, “Let’s go, Xialian!” Maybe they felt sorry for an old lady like me, but I was touched.
It didn’t matter if we lost; I wanted to put on a good match for the audience to enjoy. Too bad the Chinese players were so quick that we couldn’t keep up.
I’m content, though. At this level, the pressure is enormous. Before, I couldn’t get past beating China in my head, but I slowly got used to it and came to see table tennis as merely an athletic program. It shouldn’t be linked to anything else.
When we went on stage to get our medals, I happened to see the masks worn by the Chinese team — with the words Chinese Table Tennis; shared with the world — so I quickly asked their team translator for two: for me and Sarah.
I felt torn inside because I wanted to be like the Chinese team. Our hearts were one, and even though they stood higher than me, I was honored to stand beside them.
Although I’ve spent three decades in Luxembourg, I started out with the Chinese national table tennis team. Whether it’s bitter or sweet, those will always be happy memories for me.
Sydney, Rio, and Tokyo
After we returned from the World Table Tennis Championships, the entire country was abuzz since Luxembourg rarely made it to the top in sports. The celebrations lasted for three days straight.
My city of Ettelbruck added a dedication to their “Golden Book” for me, on which I had to sign. It is very heavy, and the people it has recorded are all noteworthy, so it was like going down in history.
The Grand Duke of Luxembourg even hosted us at Château de Berg in a China-themed room, which was filled with Chinese artifacts, porcelain vases, and patterns. It was like we were state guests. We even played table tennis together, and the Grand Duke said, “This is the best and most peaceful way to show Luxembourg to the world.”
People wave at me when I’m out on the streets, yelling “congrats,” “thank you,” or “bravo” in French, English, Luxembourgish, and German. They know that at my age, it’s not easy to get that far in table tennis.
When I left China, I first went to Germany because they have an excellent table tennis league. I often won championships when I played abroad, and the pay was 20 to 30 times higher than back home, so I thought I’d spend a few years making easy money before going back.
But I never imagined that the secretary-general of the Fédération Luxembourgeoise de Tennis de Table (FLTT) would seek me out. Their national coach had seen me play at the world championships, and they were impressed. We got along well the first time we met, and the position they offered me was coach and athlete. I didn’t want to play that much anyway, so I ended up here.
The years passed, I grew older, had children, so naturally settled in Luxembourg. This country did not have professional table tennis players before, and after I joined, we finally managed to qualify for the Olympics in 2000 — a first for Luxembourg.
My women’s doubles partner then was a student who had just finished her teaching certification. She had taken three months’ leave for the Olympics and hopped around the world playing in competitions to earn points.
She finally rose from the 300s to being ranked 175 in the world. That was just enough to meet the International Table Tennis Federation’s (ITTF) ranking requirements for women’s doubles players.
After the Sydney Olympics, I didn’t want to play anymore. I wanted to live a normal life and went on hiatus from 2002 to 2007. When the Luxembourg club team dropped to a third-tier team, the association approached me and said, “You can’t stop; we need you.”
They would have been happy just for me to have a paddle in my hand; I didn’t necessarily need to win medals.
Luxembourg didn’t have enough table tennis athletes, nor any good ones. Though Sarah has played professionally for a decade and is currently in her prime, her world ranking is 76, while mine is 40. I know she’s excited and ambitious about table tennis, and perhaps the fact that I’m still playing represents an opportunity for her to do better.
That’s the reason I can’t stop; they want me as a stabilizing force, or else the team seemingly lacks passion.
The young players practice with great intensity. They want to keep pushing their limits but I’ve long passed mine, so I focus on maintaining my stamina. Sometimes I don’t practice enough, I’m not fast enough, or I can’t get to the point of attack and I miss. But I can’t practice too much either since I’m afraid of getting sick or injured when I have a whole family that needs me.
Before a competition, the first thing needed is more physical training. It’s important to go to the gym and maintain leg strength, since you need speed to do well technically. Second, rest is essential. I only practice once a day and not for more than three hours.
I also see a physical therapist twice a week because my recovery is so slow. I have lost a lot of matches because of my poor fitness — that’s just something I have to accept.
Getting sick or injured from excessive practicing isn’t good, but the consequence of not practicing enough is losing. Since I have to live with one or the other, I would rather not practice enough.
Because of that, I intermittently stopped playing. After returning from the Rio Olympics in 2016, I said I wouldn’t play anymore, but the table tennis association wouldn’t let me.
“The entire country disagrees; the entire world disagrees,” they said, which sounded amusing to me. I thought about it for three weeks, estimating my chances of being selected for the Tokyo Olympics. I wanted to contribute, so I decided to take up the challenge.
I had too many limitations, so I really needed to rack my brains to get creative, and study my opponents’ playing style. When I played the Japanese player at the 2017 Austria Open, she was ranked 13 and I was 63.
The rules then stated that you earn more points for beating a higher-seeded player. In the past, I would have given up. Why work that hard? But this time I had to go for it. If I won, I would earn more points without having to play too many matches, for which I would not have the endurance. That’s what sustained me.
In the match, I hit 30 balls; she returned 31. It was infuriating. But she couldn’t beat me either. We played 14 match points over the course of more than 90 minutes, setting a new record because I refused to lose. If I was younger, I would’ve finished her off a long time ago.
Now that I’m older, each year is different. Turning 50 was a huge benchmark. I get tired from regular practice. While younger athletes recover with one night’s sleep, I can’t even fall asleep even when I try.
But what can one do? You just have to enjoy every minute. You don’t need to think that I’m suffering or feel sorry for me because that’s not the case at all.
I’m fortunate to be able to enjoy and play table tennis. Being old has many disadvantages, but that’s not all it is. I naturally have a good feel for the game, and I built good fundamentals when I played in China.
On top of that, my husband is European, so our styles combine Chinese and Western styles, which has made me who I am today.
A life less ordinary
The retirement age in Luxembourg is 65. At my age, those still working are mostly men: doctors, lawyers, or government officials. Most women my age are primarily housewives.
My friends in Shanghai are all living the easy life: they travel, play mahjong, go out to eat, and play table tennis for fun. But I don’t like that kind of lifestyle.
Right now I have almost the highest value in Europe as a table tennis player. My income from playing one competition is equal to several months wages for other people, so I’m reluctant to throw that away.
It’s not only about the money, though. At my age, it is a kind of honor to still have value. It’s important to live for something, and I still have a wide horizon before me, so why give that up?
I’m having a good time. I don’t practice as much as other players, and while training for the Tokyo Olympics, I only practiced two or three times a week. Nor do I need to work too hard during competitions, as it’s not beyond my abilities just to create opportunities for my partner to score.
I travel to compete and see friends, and I’m happy when I win. If I lose, I rest up like I’m on vacation and go for walks.
My life has been like that for the past decade or so, and my husband and I are very thankful. When people ask me how I have such a good attitude, it’s because I’m content, and I can enjoy myself when I’m content.
I love life. We grow roses, peach blossoms, and cherry blossom trees, so my home is like a flower shop. The table tennis season ends in May, so I’m on holiday from June to August. That’s when I tend my garden and plant flowers or vegetables. We also have a small dog, almost 17 now, and a stray cat that, in the blink of an eye, we’ve already had for two years.
We also adopted an orphaned child from Eastern Europe. When he first connected with us through FLTT, he was only 14 or 15. He loved playing table tennis and said that he had followed me closely.
Though an amateur, he has a penhold grip like me, which is rare in Europe. Since we also just happened to run a hotel, we gave him a room. He’s almost 30 now and independent, which is reassuring.
I currently live with my mother and my children. My mother fell recently and suffered an intracranial hemorrhage. She couldn’t care for herself anymore and was hospitalized for two weeks. After she was discharged, she was bedridden and needed me to look after her.
My son and my 18-year-old daughter live with me. I’m happy that they still agree to live with their mother, so our house with its three generations — and our pets — is really thriving.
When my children were younger, they didn’t really know why their parents were often absent, and they were a little unhappy about it. But over the years, they started to understand, especially during the 2012 London Olympics.
My then-20-year-old son flew with my 9-year-old daughter, and I brought them around the Olympic Village. When they saw it on that scale, they thought their parents were awesome and completely supported me, telling me to keep playing.
After this most recent whirlwind in Houston, my husband and I drove 13 or 14 hours to Sweden for Christmas. We have a vacation home in the woods there, where we sleep as late as we want and eat what we want without being disturbed by anyone. We can take time for ourselves and just be us.
His family is in Sweden. Although I don’t speak Swedish and I’m not used to the local food, Christmas is incredibly important to him, so I left my mother behind and helped him enjoy the holidays.
Tommy, my husband, is also my coach, and he always helps lighten my burden. When I first left China, I was used to winning and put a lot of stock into the outcome, but Tommy told me that life wasn’t all table tennis, that there were so many other things to enjoy. I slowly started to focus less on winning or losing, and now I have less stress.
It’s easier to medal at a younger age. I always had to get to the semis or the finals, which made me hopeful. Now, as I’m getting older, I’m losing much sooner into the competition. Tommy says that it’s good to lose; it just means an extra day or two to rest.
That kind of attitude is actually really good, and it’s only an added benefit that my results are better than I imagined.
Now it doesn’t matter to me if I lose. Does everybody have to be a champion? There are only so many to go around. Being with your family and peace of mind is also good. Success comes in many different forms.
A version of this article originally appeared in White Night Workshop. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Katherine Tse; Editors: Xue Yongle and Apurva.
(Header image: Sarah De Nutte (left) and Ni Xialian celebrate after winning the 2021 World Table Tennis Championships women’s doubles quarter-final match in the United States, Nov. 27, 2021. Itaru Chiba/AFLO via VCG)