National Champion B.Bilegt, who plays for the Mongolian national table tennis team and Och Sports Club, delved into his sports journey in the interview below.
“Dreams guide athletes to success. I like to imagine my success. Before every new year, I make a list of my dreams and take notes. Most of my dreams have come true. I wrote last year that I would succeed in international competitions. I think that dream will come true at the Asian Championships in Doha, Qatar,” the young tennis player said at the beginning of his interview.
The Asian Table Tennis Championships will kick off in Doha, Qatar on September 28. How is your team’s training going?
Our national team is preparing for the tournament at the Khandgait Resort under the guidance of Korean coach Kang Dong-hoon. The men’s table tennis team is improving year by year. Currently, the men’s team is ranked 67th and the women’s team 48th. I am confident that we will be successful this time as well.
You came from a family of athletes. Did your family have any influence on your decision to become an athlete?
In 2007, I participated in the Songinokhairkhan District Table Tennis Championship to test myself. I didn’t do that well in that competition, but I felt I had a future in this sport. I trained at a table tennis club located at the Central Cultural Palace of Mongolian Trade Union and began my career as an athlete, winning a bronze medal in the singles and gold in the team category at the 2008 Junior National Championships.
When my mother was a volleyball player and a physical education teacher at School No. 36 in Songinokhairkhan District, she regularly organized sports competitions among district schools. As I became more interested in table tennis, my mother tried to teach me volleyball. When I tried to compete in a table tennis tournament in 2006, I was told, “You shouldn’t compete in anything other than volleyball.” In volleyball, I played as a middle blocker. I begged my mom for a several days to allow me to compete in the table tennis tournament.
Is it true that State Honored Coach T.Mergen helped you become a table tennis player when you were actually playing volleyball?
Coach T.Mergen was a close friend of my father. He met with my mother and told her, “I have a responsibility to teach my friend’s son how to play table tennis. It is suitable for tall children like him.” But she did not accept his offer at that time. However, after much persuasion, I was able to become a table tennis player.
Do you think that joining the national team and competing in international competitions is a great opportunity to develop oneself?
When I was a junior athlete from 2007 to 2011, I beat an English athlete in the singles at the Taiyuan International Open Junior Table Tennis Championship, finishing in the Top 16. I also competed in the “Mongol Tuurgatan” tournament for three years in a row and won silver and bronze medals.
Joining the national team in 2012 gave me the opportunity to compete in continental and world competitions. That year, our men’s and women’s teams competed at the World Table Tennis Championships in Dortmund, Germany. It was my first big competition in Europe. Our men’s national team won the gold medal by defeating Sri Lanka’s team in Group E. I guess athletes from more than 190 countries took part in that tournament. At that time, the Mongolian peoples were very happy that the national team became world champions in table tennis. After winning the gold medal, I thought to myself that I still have a chance to succeed in the future.
You were one of the key players on your team at the championship in Dortmund, Germany. I’m sure the victory still brings happy memories to your team.
At the World Championships, under the guidance of couch S.Galbadrakh, we played in Group E and moved up to 97th place. At that time, either B.Baatarsuren or B.Batdelger was expected to play as the third player with L.Altantulga and E.Lkhagvasuren. A third player plays the most important role in the tournament. However, after discussing, coach S.Galbadrakh and athlete E.Lkhagvasuren decided that I should play as the third player. E.Lkhagvasuren won the last decisive match against Sri Lanka at the championship.
During international competitions, athletes not only test their skills but also see the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents, right?
At the 2015 Asian Championships in Pattaya, Thailand, I competed against the best North Korean athlete. I lost to him by a few points. Athletes see and study many things when they take part in international tournaments. Compared to foreigners, we’re able to think fast during the game.
Mongolian athletes are also physically strong. I am 28 years old now. I am about to retire from this sport. Table tennis is called “table chess” because it requires speed, mobility, vision and intuition. Whether a player will win is decided in just a decisecond or nanosecond, not minutes or seconds. Players see their opponent’s weaknesses, mistakes and shortcomings in that short span of time.
There are many factors that contribute to success. Nutrition is very important. We usually include meat in our diet. Compared to foreign athletes, we tend to have more strength but lack flexibility. Foreign athletes have another person in charge of all the work behind the scene during competitions. Foreign tennis players only have to play at competitions, but Mongolian athletes have to do everything themselves. Mongolian tennis players can become more successful if they are supported in every way possible. They learn things quickly and adapt fast to new environments. I have seen this in many foreign competitions.
Mongolian athletes train in difficult conditions to achieve their goal of success. Do you sometimes find living as an athlete difficult?
In the beginning, everything seemed hard for me. There were not many sponsors. My parents used to pay for everything whenever I took part in international tournaments. I was always worried about getting money from them. I took time off from training to meet with organizations and find sponsors. It’s a little different now. Professional athletes receive monthly allowances and get supported to enter competitions. This has affected the success of athletes.
I heard that before coach Kang Dong-hoon, the Mongolian national team improved its skills under the guidance of North Korea’s coach Cho Yang-ho.
I was a student when he coached the national team. Under his guidance, the men’s and women’s teams took a year off from school to train for the World Championships in Tokyo. It wasn’t easy for us to cope with his training. If we got a cold, he wouldn’t give us any medicine, so we did cardio exercises to restore our immune system. He has strict principles and high expectations for athletes. Our hard work paid off at the World Championships in Tokyo.
Would you say that the development of table tennis in Mongolia has improved a few steps since Cho Yang-ho’s arrival?
Yes. He used to confiscate our cell phones. We were “cut off” from the social media for half a year. At that time, it was impossible to know where and what was happening elsewhere. In order for us to succeed, couch Cho Yang-ho only focused on training and making sure we didn’t have any distractions. We are happy that we were able to develop our skills to meet his strict requirements.
The coach is also observant. He told us, “The Mongolian society is infuriated and chaotic. I notice that you express your anger and frustration as you train. It is very difficult to drive a car in your country. You have aggressive drivers who don’t follow traffic rules. Unfavorable social conditions will negatively affect your success.” His principles may seem harsh at times, but later realized that he trained us to become top-class athletes.
Does your mother encourage you when you are discouraged?
I never felt discouraged. I don’t always win and sometimes when I lose, I get frustrated. My mother has always supported and encouraged me during such difficult times. But she has a strange approach. She hardly praises me and her words are sharp. Even after I won a competition, she said I wasn’t good enough yet. A few days ago, I contacted my mother and she told me, “You need to take care of your health. You know you’re getting older.” But I don’t give in easily to my mother’s words. After she won a competition, she’d said that I had to win my next tournament since she won a gold medal. She’d say, “Now it’s your turn to get an award.” Although I lived apart from my family, I kept my trophies and medals at my mother’s house. She loves me but pretends to be tough on the outside.
I heard you like to play chess when you have free time.
In my free time, I play chess with my mother. We take turns winning each other. I never want to lose to my mother. When she loses, she doesn’t express her anger on her face. We compete like peers. My mother and coach T.Mergen know very well when to criticize their athletes. Because they regularly interact with athletes, they have learned their personality traits.
How much has table tennis changed you?
One of the things that made me so fast in this sport was chess. My grandfather taught me chess when I was a child. Children who engage in intellectual sports learn to sit still. A child who learns to sit still can focus on anything. Chess develops my quick-thinking skills and helps me play table tennis better.
There are many good players on the Mongolian national team. Who would you say is your strongest rival among them?
When I was a junior athlete, B.Baatarsuren was my strongest competitor. We are the same age. He played table tennis for two years in Tianjin, China. He always came in the first three places at the National Youth Championships. His style of play is similar to Chinese players’. Since I was still a kid, I used to get really upset when I lost to him. Just looking at him made me angry. Now I’m happy when a strong competitor comes out. Now I am competing with myself and my siblings. I’m more experienced than them, but it’s not easy to keep up with their speed.