Gao: I can only become better

Call him the Iceman, if you will.

By his own admission, paddler Gao Ning does not celebrate wildly after a major win, nor does he sulk after a bad performance on the court.

The 29-year-old said: "After playing for so many years, I have a more even temper on court, so you won't see me having too many emotions no matter the result."

It is a change from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he openly wept after his third-round loss to Croatia's Tan Ruiwu in the men's singles.

His newfound calm, however, does not mean that the world No. 21 does not care about his matches or tournaments.

Singapore's top male paddler is a picture of intense concentration even in training, and sometimes even berates himself for making poor shots.

Although his female teammates have been in the limelight in recent years, Gao has been the Republic's most successful paddler this season, clinching the men's doubles titles both in the Kuwait Open, with Li Hu, and in the Asian Championships with Yang Zi last month.

And while Gao counts his 10-12, 11-9, 9-11, 5-11, 11-7, 11-7, 11-8 men's singles victory over China's reigning Olympic champion Ma Lin in last November's Pro Tour Grand Finals as one of the biggest wins in his career, the Asian title this year is one he cherishes more.

The quiet Singaporean has come a long way since picking up the sport at age seven in his Hebei hometown.

"No one in my family or among my relatives was an athlete, and neither was I as a child, but my parents enrolled me in the local sports school so that I could be more physically active," said the only child.

He was among only 30 children in his age group chosen from hundreds, following physical tests and measurement of limbs.

"I've never been a sporty child, and I've never tried sports other than table tennis. While the sport was hot at the time that I first picked it up, I started liking it gradually due to my regular training," said the 1.75m-tall player.

While he once dreamt of becoming a policeman, he had another dream when he turned professional at 18 - to break into the Chinese national team.

But, as fate would have it, he came to Singapore in 2004 after being invited by Shi Mei Sheng, then a coach with the Singapore Table Tennis Association.

Gao then received his citizenship in 2006 and has been flying the Singapore flag since.

Asked if coming to Singapore was the hardest decision of his career, he said: "Not at all. I am very fortunate and thankful because Singapore has given me the platform to showcase my skills. "I wouldn't have been where I am if I hadn't come here."

When he is not busy zipping around the world for training or competitions, he enjoys watching football, snooker or tennis on television.

He said: "My favourite team are AC Milan, although I do watch Manchester United and Real Madrid in action too.

"My father loves to watch football and I would join him when I was younger because there was only one television at home.

"But I don't like watching Chinese football because the standard is not good."

Gao is unlikely to spend much time in front of the idiot box this year, with the World Team Table Tennis Championships and London Olympics looming on the horizon.

And he is aiming to at least match his 2007 season, when he clinched 10 titles, including the Pro Tour Grand Finals men's doubles with Yang.

Gao said: "I will strive to match that. I feel that these few years have been the best in my playing career, but I know that I am capable of becoming even better."

Just don't expect the Iceman to yell jubilantly when he wins another title.

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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