Lily Yip is the next coach in New Jersey tasked with building a top-tier athletics program at the collegiate level. Unlike high-profile hires such as Rutgers football’s head coach Chris Ash, Yip’s program is far from the bright lights of the gridiron in the Big Ten but for this highly-decorated, former Olympian doesn’t dissuade her from her mission.
She is convinced that Pillar College (with literally no history in athletics) can become a highly-ranked and respected program in, of all sports, table tennis.
On Tuesday, Yip was introduced as the first-ever head coach at Pillar College, a school based across three campuses in New Jersey and boasts a growing student body of 637 students. Pillar has never had a table tennis team before; in fact this is the Christian college’s first foray into athletics beyond intramural sports. They will participate in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association, playing several nationally ranked programs this year.
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But beyond being their head coach, Yip is also a bit of a ringer for this Christian college. She began playing the sport at a young age in China, widely regarded as the powerhouse of table tennis in global competitions. She coaches the team but also plays for Pillar.
In China, Yip says, there is a culture around table tennis as she herself grew up playing the sport. At 15-years old, just a couple months before she was supposed to graduate from high school, she turned professional with a contract from the Chinese government. The goal was for Yip to become a standout at the international level.
But the Olympics, the goal of every Chinese athlete in the program, was never to be for her…at least not for her native country. Life would take her instead to a new country, a new home.
She came to the United States in 1989 at 24-years old to be united with family, not to further her table tennis career. She wanted to get an education and was prepared to leave the sport that was such a big part of her life essentially behind her. The move to America, where the sport is more commonly called ping pong and fails to register among football, baseball and basketball, was not a move to further her athletic career. She was prepared to put away her athletic ambitions for good.
“After the professional life is finished of an athlete, there was nowhere to go. Nothing to do,” Yip told Metro.
“Of course I wanted the ‘American Dream.’ The life, education. The dream. So I made the move. I didn’t think sport was in my future.”
Little did she know that her past as a highly-trained athlete in China would pave the way for her future.
She began playing in local table tennis tournaments for the exercise and to no one’s surprise she dominated the competition. Winning she says – “makes you feel good” – and she continued to play (and win) tournaments. A couple years later Yip played in a qualifying tournament for the United States Olympic squad, eventually being ranked third in the nation. From there it would only grow as she was part of the Olympic teams in 1992 in Barcelona and then again the Atlanta games in 1996.
In 2004 she would be inducted to the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame and this past summer, Yip was the head coach of the United States in this summer’s Olympics.
Now she is at Pillar where she not only coaches the team but also plays for their team; Yip is enrolled at the college as well and is earning her masters degree in counseling. Her team, she said, are ambassadors of the college as Pillar is relatively small in student body size compared to the likes of Penn State and Pittsburgh, two programs they’ve already faced this year.
And the program shows no signs of slowing down. Assistant coach Jim Hanlon said that he is already busy recruiting international students to create a pipeline of table tennis talent coming to the school.
“A lot of blessings from God. The United States gave me an opportunity to continue the sport. I have made so many friendships here through this sport,” Yip said.
“At the same time, I can renew my education here. I can contribute more and share the skill I have. I can learn more, I can do more things. What a blessing.”