Pang's leap of faith
Paddler hopes decision to quit university pays off with SEA Games and Commonwealth Games success
In three weeks' time, Pang Xue Jie turns 24, but he already feels like he is in a race against time.
Just over a week ago, he made a huge decision.
Barely one semester into his business management course at the Singapore Management University, the paddler announced his decision to drop out of school to turn professional.
"I was older than my peers in school; I am two years senior to the guys and four years older than the girls," said Pang.
"I feel like I am not young anymore and I wanted to do something else."
Becoming a full-time table tennis player wasn't an automatic choice for Pang, who competed for Singapore at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Malaysia last year.
There, the Singaporean shocked then-world No. 14 Koki Niwa of Japan with a 11-4, 2-11, 11-8, 2-11, 11-8 win in the first singles of the Republic's 3-1 loss to Japan.
He said: "Initially, I wanted to find other options; perhaps to start work first and find out what I really want, maybe then I will have more motivation to study.
"But it came to a point where this option (table tennis) was available."
It took about two months for Pang to take the leap.
He had to convince others too, especially his parents, on his "unconventional" decision.
"I have been playing table tennis for so long and I still feel that I have it in me to work hard and get more medals at the South-east Asia Games and the Commonwealth Games," said Pang, who won the men's doubles gold at the 2011 SEA Games, and the team gold in 2013.
He did not compete in the 2015 Games on home ground due to National Service commitments.
Pang was also part of the men's team that clinched the team gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
I have been playing table tennis for so long and I still feel that I have it in me to work hard and get more medals at the South-east Asia Games and the Commonwealth Games.Singapore paddler Pang Xue Jie
The Singapore Sports School graduate's decision is a boost to the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA), which has lost several male players since the Rio Olympics last year.
Li Hu has been ousted, following disciplinary issues, while first-time Olympian Chen Feng has retired at age 22, citing the need to take care of his ageing parents.
Stalwart Yang Zi, 32, has also hung up his bat, citing chronic injuries, while his contemporary Gao Ning is already 34 and has taken on a part-time coaching role at the STTA while continuing to play.
The exodus leaves Pang, Gao Ning and Clarence Chew as the only senior members of the team, with the STTA keen to groom local-born paddlers towards Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
"There's a difference, because now the three of us are the core players for the SEA Games," Pang said.
"It's a little more added pressure for me, but in a positive way. I constantly remind myself that I have these shoes to fill and I need to practise hard."
He has been pushing himself in the past few weeks to get rid of his ring rust and aims to make a return to the competitive circuit at the Thailand Open next month.
Asked how long he is giving professional table tennis a shot, Pang said: "I am not sure, maybe until a point where I feel I am getting stagnant. Right now, there's room to grow.
"(Tokyo) 2020? Of course that's the ultimate goal, but it's good to take it one step at a time and not set such a big target.
"It is possible, but taking things one at a time is a more efficient form of motivation for me."