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A 12-Year-Old Syrian Makes Her Olympic Debut

Syria's Hend Zaza competes during a women's table tennis singles preliminary round match against Austria's Liu Jia at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Kin Cheung
Syria's Hend Zaza competes during a women's table tennis singles preliminary round match against Austria's Liu Jia at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

The youngest Olympian at the Tokyo Games was knocked out of the competition in her first round on Saturday.

The Syrian table tennis player, Hend Zaza, just 12 years old, took it all in stride. She snapped a picture with her Austrian opponent, Liu Jia before leaving.

In her Olympic debut, Zaza played a woman more than three times her age at the women's singles preliminary round. She's beat players more seasoned than herself before. To qualify for the Games she bested a 42-year-old Lebanese player when she was 11.

"I was hoping to play better but it's a tough opponent so it's a good lesson for me, especially with this being my first Olympics," Zaza said to reporters after the match. "I will work on it to get a better result for the next time, hopefully."

Born in Hama, Syria, the table tennis player is the fifth-youngest Olympian of all time and the youngest at the Games since 11-year-old Spanish rower Carlos Front competed in 1992.

Zaza was one of Syria's flag bearers in the "Parade of Athletes" at the Opening Ceremony Friday. She's been celebrated for her skill at such a young age and for her drive to train and compete despite the challenges of the pandemic and the civil war in Syria. She turned to table tennis at the age of five because she wanted to play the same game her brother did.

Power outages at home curbed night-time practices and she couldn't participate in as many matches outside Syria because of the conflict.

After her loss she had a message for other kids.

"For the last five years I've been through many different experiences, especially when there was the war happening around the country, with the postponement with funding for the Olympics, and it was very tough," she said. "But I had to fight for it and this is my message to everyone who wishes to have the same situation. Fight for your dreams, try hard, regardless of the difficulties that you're having, and you will reach your goal."

Her opponent, Jia, was also a flag bearer on Friday. The 39-year-old Austrian player said when she first told her daughter she was going up against a player just two years older than her, her daughter said 'You better not lose.'

Jia is happy to advance but "there's sport and there's life," she said after the match.

"There are people who have to endure difficulties. They are amazing, it hasn't been easy for them," she said. "She's a girl too — to be in the Olympics at 12, in my heart I really admire her."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.