Game On

Jishan Liang, one of the top table tennis players in the US, coaches from the comfort of his own home in Cary.

By definition, the terms “ping pong” and “table tennis” can be used interchangeably — but after speaking with one of the highest-rated players in the US, Jishan Liang, I have come to the conclusion that ping pong is played in the garage and table tennis is something else entirely.

Like most of us, Cary resident Jerred Miklowcic started playing ping pong “tournaments” alongside his friends in his basement while in middle school.

“When I was in eighth grade, my mom saw an advertisement for a $500 prize ping pong tournament,” said Miklowcic, laughing at the memory. “My friends and I played all the time and thought we were really good. We showed up for the tournament, and they asked us if we’d like to sign up for the expert division or the novice division and we were like, well the money’s in the expert, right? They said they would watch us hit a couple of balls and decide which division we should be in. We literally hit like one ball and they were like, yeah, novice … you have to be in the novice division. That’s kind of when I found out it was like an Olympic sport and people took it seriously.”

At only 3 1/2 years old, Willam Liang, the son of professional table tennis players Jishan Liang and Hong Lin, is no stranger to the game.

Entirely self-taught in his younger years, Miklowcic didn’t tap into the “huge ping pong scene in the Triangle” until he was fresh out of college.

“This area is actually one of the hot spots, so when I found that out, I knew there would be some crazy coaches out here,” said Miklowcic.

Miklowcic found his current coach, Liang, at the Triangle Badminton and Table Tennis facility in Morrisville.

“Jishan came and started working at that facility maybe in like 2015 or 2016, and that’s when I started taking lessons with him. He’s the highest-rated table tennis player that’s pretty much ever lived in North Carolina, and he’s top three in the country right now, so it’s ridiculous,” said Miklowcic. “I couldn’t miss the opportunity to start taking lessons with him.”

Jishan Liang, a member of the USA National Table Tennis Team, recently represented Team USA at the World Championships in Chengdu, China.

Born in Tianjin, China, Liang picked up his first paddle at 7 years young.

“My grandparents liked ping pong, and I went with them to play a couple of times,” said Liang. “I tried it and they said, oh, this kid has talent! Plus I’m left-handed, and there aren’t many left-handed people in China.”

Jishan Liang

Following this discovery, Liang was catapulted into the world of professional Chinese table tennis at a young age — something wildly different than the basement ping pong we all know and love.

“When I was 10 years old, I started training professionally every day,” said Liang. “When you start training professionally, it’s like a job that lasts eight hours a day — three hours in the morning, three hours in the afternoon, two hours at night. They start paying you at 11 years old, and you get a bonus if you win a tournament.”

The intense training regimen certainly paid off. At age 19, Liang was eligible for an EB-1A green card, reserved for individuals who demonstrate “extraordinary ability” in science, art, education, business, or athletics.

“I got a green card in just four months,” said Liang. “After that I came and started working here as a table tennis coach. Right now I’m 31, so I’ve lived in the US for 12 years.”

After stints in Seattle and New York, Liang eventually settled in Cary around 2014.

“I had the opportunity to come to North Carolina to play a tournament, and I really liked it,” said Liang. “Now that I have a family and I have my son, I like living here in a bigger house, in a more quiet environment. And there’s actually a big community for table tennis.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, table tennis is a family affair — Liang’s wife, Hong Lin, is also a top-rated professional table tennis player and coach, and their 3 1/2-year-old son seems destined to follow suit.

“My son has actually already started playing table tennis,” said Liang. “He sees me coaching every day, so he started training. It’s not serious training, but he is doing really well right now. All ages can play, from 3-year-olds like my son to 80-year-olds.”

During Covid, finding a place big enough to train and coach from home became crucial for Liang’s family.

“I thought, why don’t I buy a house that has a basement and a big garage, so I can train at home and work from home? We’re very lucky, because now we have four tables at home where I can practice and coach,” said Liang.

Fun with the family: Hong Lin, also a professional table tennis player and coach, plays with their son, Willam Liang.

Liang’s coaching business, NC International Table Tennis, has brought international success to many of his students. In the U11 (under 11) boys category, Liang coaches a US National Champion, a US Open Champion, and a US Trial Champion. In the U15 (under 15) group, he coaches a USA Team member, a Canada National Champion, and a 2021 Tokyo Olympian. His coaching success is not too surprising — after becoming a US citizen in 2018, Liang now represents the US as one of the top three players on the USA National Table Tennis Team.

Jishan Liang’s Notable Achievements:

  • Represented Team USA in the World Championships
  • Pan American Championships, Silver Medal
  • US Open Team and Doubles Champion
  • US National Men’s Singles Bronze Medal
  • US National Trial, Silver Medal
  • Four-Time North American Team, Silver Medal
  • Hall of Fame Cup Champion
  • Rates in the Top 5 Players in the US, Number 1 in NC

For a complete understanding of just how good Liang is, one has to be familiar with the ELO rating system (used in zero-sum games such as chess).

“The higher the number, the better you are,” said Miklowcic. “In chess, you have to be 2500 to be a Grandmaster, and in table tennis it’s similar. 2400 is like a professional-level player, and the average-level player in the US is like 1200 or 1250. When I started taking lessons with Jishan I was probably like 1600-1700, and recently the highest rating I’ve ever achieved was right around 2100. Jishan is above 2700, so when I play Jishan he doesn’t even have to try.”

Despite all of the accolades and recently representing the US in the World Championships in Chengdu, China, Liang is by all accounts a humble and kind player.

“He’s just a really nice guy, always willing to help out, super chill,” said Miklowcic. “I study the game and take lessons — but I can’t even comprehend the things that Jishan is doing on the table. He can serve the ball to me, and I might not even get the ball back, because the spin is so ridiculous. I’ll touch it with my paddle and it’ll just fly in a direction that I don’t understand. The game is just so complicated and so complex, but that’s what makes it fun.”

Jishan practices at home with his wife, Hong Lin, one of the top female table tennis players in the US. “She’s incredibly good. He has a built-in practice partner there,” said Miklowcic.

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