Table tennis veterans still paddling against the tide
"I feel good," said the 56-year-old, who sometimes competes against paddlers less than half his age.
Zhao won his first match in Tokyo 3-1 against Ireland's 26-year-old Colin Judge, affirming that his age would not inhibit him from his Paralympic dream.
This was Zhao's fourth Paralympic appearance. Nowadays, he says he has to train harder than his younger opponents to sustain his competitiveness, and remains hopeful of competing at the next Paralympic Games in Paris in 2024.
Zhao finished fifth in the men's singles, vowing to keep playing as long as he stays fit and healthy.
Having been paralyzed following a car accident in 1999, Zhao first took up table tennis to assist his rehabilitation.
However, as time went by, he also found confidence and happiness in the sport.
"I hope that the Paralympics can help more people learn about the disabled community and encourage more disabled people to participate in sports and social life," he said.
Zhao is among a 27-strong Chinese table tennis team participating in the Tokyo Paralympics. Fifteen of them are over 30 years old and more than half have competed in at least two Paralympic Games. These veterans have become the mainstays of the squad.
Xiong Guiyan, 45, is competing at her second Paralympics. She and her teammates finished second in Rio and this time she is aiming for a gold medal in the women's singles.
Xiong ultimately had to settle for silver after losing the Class 9 gold-medal match against Australia's Lei Lina.
Xiong, who used to be an able-bodied paddler in Heilongjiang province, chose to become a para-athlete after developing sclerosing osteomyelitis, a bone disease.
Despite her advancing years, Xiong's passion for table tennis has never waned.
The year-long postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic demanded an extra level of commitment and training, which Xiong said has helped to both improve her technique and boost her confidence.
Table tennis player Zhang Yan, 54, is competing in his fifth Paralympic Games in Tokyo. [Photo/REUTERS]
Zhang Yan, a five-time Paralympian, is another whose pure passion for the sport keeps him motivated to continue competing.
The 54-year-old was struck by polio in his youth, but encouraged by his mother, he picked up a table tennis bat at age 7.
"It made me healthier and happier," he said.
Overuse of his left hand to move his wheelchair while playing eventually gave him calluses, which frequently wore away and grew back again.
"I don't know how many layers of calluses there have been," Zhang said.
He failed to advance at Tokyo after two consecutive losses in the men's singles, but the veteran was far from disheartened.
"To compete again in the Paralympic Games is already a dream come true for me," he said.