Gold Coast (Australia) (AFP) – Eleven-year-old Anna Hursey is set to make Commonwealth Games history this week when the pint-sized Welsh table tennis player hopes to punch above her weight and win a medal.
Hursey, who first picked up a bat at five, will become the youngest athlete to represent Wales at the Commonwealth Games and is thought to be the youngest athlete, of any nationality, ever to compete at the quadrennial event.
“She’s taking it in her stride really,” Welsh coach Stephen Jenkins told AFP.
“She is actually really mature for her age. It’s just inside her — she’s mentally strong.”
Hursey’s team-mates, including Welsh number one Charlotte Carey, have taken her under their wing to help protect her from the glare of publicity.
“They don’t want to baby her,” insisted Jenkins. “It’s more that she’s a team-mate, and that’s important for Anna as well — she doesn’t want to be the baby.
“But the girls have been fantastic. Charlotte was in a similar position to Anna once and knows exactly what she’s going through.”
Standing just 1.60 metres (5ft 3in), the Cardiff schoolgirl is a tenacious competitor, having already broken records by appearing at last year’s European championships.
“This is on slightly a bigger scale and she knows that,” said Jenkins, as Hursey smashed balls past a male opponent in training.
“But she’s not expected to win a medal so it sort of takes the pressure off. I know what she can do when she plays her best — the future’s looking good for her.”
– ‘Bit scary’ –
Jenkins believes Hursey, who trains four to six hours a day and wakes up early to go running before school, has what it takes to climb up the world rankings.
“She can be top 50 in the world if she wants it,” he predicted. “If she keeps that desire to want to be a top player, she can go a long way.”
To reach her potential, Hursey’s short-term future is likely to involve regular training trips to China, birthplace of her mother Phoebe.
Anna experienced a baptism of fire on a previous visit to China, where she observed how Chinese coaches beat young players with bat handles to punish them for missing shots.
“It was a bit scary because if you get something wrong, they just hit you,” she told local media.
“I felt really sorry for my friend because when she missed the ball, they’d use the bat handle to whack her hand.”
But Jenkins believes China holds the key to Hursey’s development as she targets a place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“She’s definitely going to have to go back to China,” he said. “We’ve got good training facilities in Wales but we’re also limited in what we can give her.
“She has to go abroad and learn from the best and China is so far ahead of everyone in the world, so she’s got to learn from them really.”