Anna Hursey has a cherub’s smile, is full of fun and, like any kid her age, enjoys going to the cinema or having sleepovers with her friends. Yet this is no ordinary 11-year-old. Put a table tennis bat in her hand and she is transformed into a sporting whirlwind.
She may look into the TV camera lens and giggle, “One day I’m going to be an Olympic medallist,” but when you see her bouncing round the table and hitting the ball with rare speed and ferocity, you recognise this is no idle promise.
For this Cardiff girl is a prodigy. At seven, she was reducing 20-year-old opponents to fits of impotent, bat-chucking fury as they wondered how they had lost to a girl still barely tall enough to peep over the table.
Not only is Anna the youngest sportsperson ever to represent Wales at senior level (when she was just ten), she has also been beating the Chinese at their own game in their own back yard and is spearheading the Welsh team at the Commonwealth Games. With mum Phoebe as chaperone, Anna will take her school books and homework with her as the youngest competitor in the Gold Coast village and one of the youngest-ever athletes in the event’s 88-year history.
This surprises but doesn’t daunt Anna. “It was great to get selected. I thought it would be too early for me and that I’d be at the next one [in 2022]. I don’t know if I can get a medal, but I’m going to try as hard as I can and enjoy myself.”
Anna’s Chinese mum, Xiuli Zhang, who uses her English name Phoebe, and English dad Larry wouldn’t rule out anything for their “lovely girl”, who is now Europe’s best player for her age.
It’s been a remarkable family adventure. Phoebe, a business administrator and translator, and Larry, who works in the criminal justice system, have made considerable sacrifices and spent thousands of pounds to help turn Anna into a champion, including building a £27,000 table tennis unit in their back garden.
The story began back in China, where table tennis is a national obsession. When studying out there and playing the sport for fun, Larry met English teacher Phoebe at college. They married, emigrated to Wales, where Larry’s parents lived, and baby Anna was born in Carmarthen.
One day, Phoebe took her energetic four-year-old to the Penlan Leisure Centre in Swansea. “She got upset because nobody would play with her because she was so young,” recalls Phoebe. “She had to play against a robot player there. Or me. I don’t play, but I had to just to cheer her up.
“I offered two male players £15 an hour if they could teach my little girl, but they said they weren’t qualified and she was too young. I wanted to do something for her so I took six weeks’ unpaid leave and took her to China because I knew there’d be coaches available.”
The coach Phoebe employed was astonished by Anna: “She was much stronger than the Chinese girls of the same age, he thought, because she was drinking cow’s milk.”
Back in Wales, Anna’s ability was spotted by national coaches and she was soon beating – and upsetting – adult players. One smashed a bat on the table and threw a ball at her. “It can’t have been fun losing to a nine-year-old,” shrugs a surprisingly understanding Anna.
The next big step was in 2016 when Phoebe took Anna back home to Harbin, one of the biggest cities in north-eastern China, for a year, to give her experience of the schooling there and intense, six-hours-a-day table tennis training.
It was a big culture shock for Anna, who can now speak fluent Mandarin. “It was a bit scary because if you get something wrong, they just, like, hit you,” she says. “Not me, though. I felt really sorry for my friend because when she missed the ball, they’d use the bat handle to whack her hand as punishment. Yet when I missed it, they were, like, ‘Oh, that’s OK’.”
Phoebe reckons this was because Anna was already defeating their best players, even winning a regional tournament in an area representing 80 million people. “It was embarrassing for them,” explains Phoebe.
Thirty hours of ping-pong a week was a serious slog, though. “Maybe [the training in] China is a bit better, but I’m more relaxed here, I can hang out with my friends,” says Anna. “Over there, it’s just training, training, training. If I always did that, I might not like table tennis any more.”
For the moment, though, she loves the sport, and her parents are planning to bring over a leading coach from China.
“I don’t find anything else as interesting as table tennis,” says Anna. “Studying is OK, but I think I can make a career out of sport.”
She has already been approached to play for a professional team in the Czech Republic, but her next target is the 2020 Olympics. “Hopefully I can get into the British team for Tokyo,” she says. By which point she will have just turned 14.
“She’d have to be a top player in Britain by 13 and in the top 50 women in Europe,” cautions Larry.
Not that Anna is easily discouraged. “Sometimes, when you lose, you’re like, ‘I’ve been training hard for nothing,’ but when you win, you feel like it’s all paid off,” she says. “You have good times and bad times – but mostly it’s good times.”
Like the day she beat her dad for the rst time. Larry was a decent club player, and Anna was only seven.
“Oh, it was brilliant, so funny,” laughs the princess of ping-pong. “I really made fun of him!”
The table tennis preliminaries begin on Thursday 5 April