SINGAPORE - June 2, 2013. The stage - or rather, the table - was set in Velocity @ Novena Square. Throngs of people gathered to watch the finals of the Crocodile Challenge Cup, organised by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA).
National paddler Zhou Jingyi, then only eight, was nervous about taking part in her first competitive final but also marvelling at the many eyes on her.
"I didn't know much then," she said, "but it was a different setting, playing in a mall so the Primary 2 me was thinking that this is a really cool experience. Of course I was nervous but I also thought that it was really fun."
Still, she managed to turn her attention to the match and eventually came from behind to beat current national teammate Ser Lin Qian 3-2 (7-11, 11-6, 11-7, 9-11, 11-8) to win her first gold medal.
That victory was a catalyst. It sparked her confidence and fired up her love for the game.
Zhou, who started playing when she was five, said: "When I won, I was really happy and I wanted to play more. I was also more motivated to train and grew to like the sport even more.
"What I really like is that it's both a mental and physical sport. On court, you have to be focused at all times and make split-second decisions.
"The scores can fluctuate very quickly so there's that adrenaline rush. Every ball is unpredictable and I like how fast things can change which means I also have to adapt quickly."
From then on, as Zhou put it, it has been quite smooth sailing for her. The following year, she joined the national junior development squad and was the youngest Singaporean to reach the top five in the Under-15 girls' International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) world ranking list in June 2018.
After winning a few tournaments at the junior & cadet level, she progressed to World Table Tennis youth events and won the U-17 Girls' singles in Szombathely, Hungary.
She was also the youngest member of the team that retained Singapore's bronze at the 2021 Asian Championships and was promoted to the national team in January this year.
But outside sport, life was more complicated and she had to make the difficult decision to drop out of the International Baccalaureate programme at the Singapore Sports School after Secondary 2. She switched to SSP's polytechnic through-train programme and graduated last year. She is now taking time off to focus on table tennis before enrolling in Ngee Ann Polytechnic's business management course.
While she was initially reluctant to drop out of the IB programme, she realised that doing so would give her more bandwidth for training and competing.
Zhou said: "I did regret a little bit when Covid-19 hit because I could've continued but looking back, there's no point because that was the better option at the time so that I could focus on table tennis.
"It's not something I can turn back time to re-do and I don't regret it now. If I had the chance, I would still make that decision again."
Focusing on table tennis paid off as Zhou, who turns 17 on May 8, will fulfil her dream of representing Singapore at a major Games when she makes her debut at the May 12-23 SEA Games in Hanoi.
She said: "The coaches have high expectations and hope we do well but I guess I'm more excited because it's my first time and I'm not really sure how it feels to play in that major Games environment.
"I'm sure I'll be nervous because (national women's coach Jing Junhong) will come down harder on us but I hope not to succumb to pressure."
While she is hoping to win a medal, she also does not want the pressure associated with results to interfere with her performance.
"If I put results first, I would feel the pressure. Instead, I'll stick to my performance goals (of winning one or two matches against better opponents) and thinking of how I should play every ball and try my best.
"Then, I'm sure results will come."
Name: Zhou Jingyi
Sport: Table tennis
Date of birth: May 8, 2005
SEA Games events: Team (May 13-15), women's doubles (May 17-18), singles (May 18-20)
2021: Asian Championships (bronze, women's team), World Youth Contender Szombathely (gold, Under-17 girls' singles)
2020: Swedish Junior & Cadet Open and Safir International Tournament (gold, U-16 girls' singles)
2019: South East Asian Junior & Cadet Championships (gold, cadet girls' singles and team)
Fun fact: Her Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFJ.