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Ai Fukuhara decided it was right time to step away

by Hiroshi Ikezawa

Staff Writer

There were no traits of a crying baby. Instead of shedding tears, which was her trademark in childhood, Ai Fukuhara kept smiling and repeated the words of appreciation as the 29-year-old table tennis icon spoke to the media on Tuesday, two days after announcing her retirement from competition.

“I was going to fade out after the announcement on my blog and I never expected this many people would come to see me after a two-year absence from competition,” Fukuhara said of more than 100 media members gathered at a Tokyo hotel. “I really appreciate it.”

Fukuhara, who started playing table tennis under her mother Chiyo’s guidance at age 3, decided to call it a career after 26 years.

During her career, she competed in four Olympics from 2004 to 2016, earning a silver medal in the team event at the 2012 London Games and a bronze in the same category four years later in Rio de Janeiro.

But Fukuhara has been away from competition since the Rio Olympics. She married Taiwanese table tennis player Chiang Hung-chieh and gave birth to their daughter a year ago.

“During these past two years, my mind kept changing,” Fukuhara said. “One day, I made a decision. But I came up with opposite ideas one week later. When I stepped back, however, and looked back at myself to consider my role in table tennis, I found myself pretty much done.”

She continued: “There are many new players in table tennis and this sport has become more popular in Japan. I realized table tennis in this country is just fine without me.”

Fukuhara said she made the decision in May, but did not have enough courage to tell people around her. But as the T.League, the new table tennis circuit, was set to start on Wednesday, Fukuhara decided to make the announcement beforehand.

The Sendai native became famous and popular even before entering elementary school. Many television programs featured her as the “genius table tennis girl.” Fans also loved the images of a young Fukuhara crying in frustration during matches and practice sessions, calling her “crybaby Ai.”

Asked what was most memorable in her career, Fukuhara picked two moments — the scene from the podium when she won her first national championship in 2011 and the London Olympics.

“It took a while until I finally won the national championship,” Fukuhara told reporters “With the title, I can really call myself Japan’s representative. When I took the top position on the podium, I saw my family, coaches and staff in the stands really pleasedwith the championship. I never forget that moment.”

Fukuhara said she wants to continue to be involved with table tennis. Becoming a coach could be a future choice but she denied that she would start coaching anytime soon.

“I have never coached anybody,” she said. “I have to learn a lot of things first and become a person who people need as a coach.”

Her daughter could be her first player to coach, but she has a plan instead.

“I have no intention to tell her that I was a player,” Fukuhara said with a smile. “One day my family go to an onsen (hot springs) or something and play table tennis at a hotel. Then I show her a smash. Until then, my playing career should be a secret to her.

“My next goal is team up with my mother in a doubles (match). She was my coach but we have never been doubles teammates. I also (want to) make a mixed doubles team with my husband’s father, who plays table tennis. I’m looking forward to these things.”

Fukuhara has been friendly with the media throughout her career and Tuesday’s media session was no exception. She thanked the media at the end of the session, saying “You have been always around me since I was a kid. I really enjoyed the time with you. I learned jump rope and riding a bike from you.”

Before leaving the session, Fukuhara made a request to have her picture taken with all of the assembled media.

Fukuhara’s request was granted and she was sent off with applause.