When Jeremy Hazin took a family cruise through the Panama Canal last Christmas, his parents had just one rule: no Ping-Pong tournaments.
"He loves to play on the ship with those ugly rackets and have fun with other people," says his mother, Jenny Chu-Hazin. "But I told him, he's a kind of professional, so he can't compete."
It was a rare setback in the extraordinary table-tennis career of the compact 13-year-old, Grade 7 student from Richmond Hill, Ont. But the enforced break from tournament play did nothing to slow Jeremy's ascent in a highly competitive sport: When the world championships begin in Paris next week, he will be the youngest Canadian to compete on the men's national team.
There are few sports in which a 13-year-old can overachieve on a global stage, and fewer still that combine such highly trained athleticism with refined tactical techniques. Jeremy, an only child with a highly independent streak, didn't take up the game until he was 8, and his rise to prodigy status could be a case study in how parental devotion and determination can rapidly transform a child's pleasure into world-class performance.
He's sponsored by the Japanese equipment manufacturer Butterfly as a rising star, and trains with a seven-days-a-week regimen designed by his engineer father Sam. "Every minute of every day, I can tell you what he's doing," Sam says.
His Hong Kong-born grandmother greets him with soup when he arrives home from school at 3:30, and then his father drives him off to Toronto-area clubs where he works on his serving techniques, footwork, strength training and strategy long into the evening, fitting in homework during his breaks. By the time he gets home at 10 or 10:30 p.m., his mother's trying to fall asleep – she leaves for work at 6 a.m. – but the sound of thumping feet, post-practice analysis and Kraft Dinner being cooked is usually enough to wake her up. Weekends at least offer more time together: The three of them bond on trips to tournaments or to the national table-tennis training centre in Ottawa.
"Table tennis has brought us closer as a family," Jenny says. "It's a good relationship, it's healthy. He spends a lot of time with us because he's always training." All children find ways to fill up their time, his parents argue, but familial table tennis produces better long-term results than solitary Nintendo-playing.
Jeremy rose to Ping-Pong prominence almost by accident. His Palestinian-born father had played at the University of Waterloo and was reintroduced to the game by a friend who belonged to a local club. At first, it was a place to park the eight-year-old for an hour of instruction while he and Jenny went shopping.
"We thought it was a great babysitting service," Jenny says. And then Jeremy started winning against all comers, exhibiting a rare delicate touch. While Jenny was at first skeptical, Sam saw huge potential, and made it his mission to see where this passion could lead.
He may be a Grade 7 student with an oddball love of Cantonese pop songs – he's been studying Chinese since he was 3 and communicates with his Chinese-born coaches in Mandarin – but Jeremy's extramural life is now closer to that of a globe-trotting professional.
"This summer is going to be chaotic," he says, chatting in the family room among trophies and ribbons he has won both for table tennis and one of his other talents, Cantonese poetry recitation. "Because I'm going to Vegas for a week for the U.S. Open, Halifax for the Canadian championships, Beijing for a month of training, then straight to Vancouver for training camp and a one-week tournament. So I'm spending four days at home the whole summer. "
But at 13, with classmates who refuse to believe he's a professional-level athlete, he still has to make room for his education – he's got 12 days of schoolwork to cover during his trip to the worlds. "I can always do it on the flight home," he says with the nonchalance of a seasoned pro. "It's seven hours coming back, plenty of time. I always leave my homework till the end of a tournament because it just messes up my mental strength."
He also leaves the worries about financing to his parents: They'll be spending at least $30,000 this year on coaching and travelling.
Jenny, an accountant for CIBC, books the flights and hotels and makes the operation flow smoothly at the time-management level. Sam, a circuit-board designer, oversees Jeremy's training schedule and is renowned for pushing coaches harder than any other table-tennis Dad.
"Jeremy is different from other kids," he says in his defence. "He loves a challenge, and people are amazed at how much pressure he can handle." At 13, he knows he's going to lose more than win, and his father tries to keep post-game critiques technical rather than personal, while admitting, "The stakes are higher for me. I'm emotionally invested in my kid. It's different."
Jeremy for his part, confident of his ability, refuses to submit to parental authority. "As long as he has respect, I don't need him to be afraid of me," Sam says. "He has fun, he enjoys who he is."
The definition of fun is a little different for a child who plays against men. "I'm going to use my talent to the best of my ability, and make it as far as I can," he says. "I'm on the right track, and if I work hard, maybe in two or three years I'll be world-class."
It's a life that chose itself, Sam believes. "I'm doing this because he loves it and I want to see how good he can become. And I tell him almost every week, anytime you want to stop, it just takes one minute."
Maybe he'll become a Cantonese pop star instead. But first there's the world championships in Paris, and Jeremy's chance to realize a lifelong dream in the midst of the most intense competition of his young life. "He wants to climb to the top of the Eiffel Tower," says his mother. The kid may be an old soul, but he still knows how to have fun.