Ai Fukuhara: From tearful toddler to Japan's table tennis queen

Willie Grace | 11/12/2014, 1:04 p.m. | Updated on 11/12/2014, 1:04 p.m.
As she rocks back and forth, executing every flick, chip and smash with lightning speed, it's easy to see why ...

(CNN) -- Ai Fukuhara's face is a picture of concentration as she crouches over the table tennis table, batting ball after ball back to her opponent.

As she rocks back and forth, executing every flick, chip and smash with lightning speed, it's easy to see why she says the game calls for a nimble mind as well as quick hands and feet.

"Table tennis is often compared to a 100m run while playing chess," Fukuhara told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"It's really right. You have to think as well as move -- so not only does your energy get used up, but also your brain gets exhausted."

Despite being only 26 years old, Fukuhara is a veteran of the sport honing her game over the course of 16 years in the professional ranks and before that as a precocious amateur.

The girl affectionately known as "Ai-chan" (her first name means "love" in English) shot to fame in her native Japan following a series of appearances on national television when she was a toddler.

"I started table tennis at three years and nine months old and I've been covered by the media since I was four," she explains.

TV viewers marveled at the little girl from Sendai who could barely see over the top of the table but could hold her own against adult opponents.

But it was her tears when she lost a points that most people remember, earning her the nickname "cry baby."

Some of the footage, which can be found on YouTube, looks traumatic at times, but she recalls her early duels against TV opponents with a sense of fondness now.

"I was just putting my whole energy against them," she says. "I was just enjoying surprising people. I wanted to win the game. I was happy that people cheered for me."

The performances helped lodge Fukuhara's name in the public consciousness and set the tone for a life devoted to table tennis.

Today, Fukuhara trains for around six to seven hours every day and estimates to have completed more than 25,000 hours (nearly three years solid) of practice to date.

This work ethic, instilled by her mother, Chiyo, laid the foundations for her rapid rise through the junior ranks.

At five years old, she won her first national competition and turned pro at the age of 10 in 1999.

Four years later, she was representing her country at the world championships in Paris where she reached the quarterfinals, before making history at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when, aged 15 years, 287 days, she became the youngest-ever female table tennis player to appear at the Games.

A medal proved elusive at both Athens and Beijing four years later where she was afforded the honor of flag bearer for the Japanese team.

But a silver medal in the team event in London in 2012 earned her and Japan their first-ever medal in table tennis since it became an Olympic sport in 1988.

"Everyone was so happy (back at home). I was amazed how pleased they were.