The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games marks Australian ladies table tennis player Jian Fang Lay’s sixth Commonwealth Games appearance. The 49-year-old is the first Australian woman to achieve this feat, and only the sixth Australian Commonwealth Games athlete.
Lay’s story as a table tennis player begins in Wenzhou, China. She began playing the sport at the age of six, with her father a keen player himself. At the age of 11, Lay was a provincial champion–though she would often run away after school to avoid her lessons.
Described as a “fierce self-critic”, Lay would come close to quitting the sport before becoming the athlete she is today–it was her father that cajoled her into continuing, until it was her husband Jorge Lay who talked her out of retirement in 1994.
1994 was also the year Lay headed to Australia with Jorge, who was her training partner and coach. She has since then spent two and a half decades representing Australia in the Olympics, Ocean Championships, World Championships, as well as the Commonwealth Games.
However, it wasn’t until the Tokyo 2020 Olympics where Lay achieved the cult figure status she holds now. The name Jian Fang Lay was little known despite her appearing in every Olympics since Sydney 2000, a feat accompanied by eight Commonwealth Games medals. Now she’s regarded as “Australia’s secret weapon”.
It was this Olympic appearance feat that landed her this status: Tokyo 2020 marked Lay in Australian sporting history, with her becoming the first Australian woman (alongside equestrian Mary Hannan) to compete in six Olympic games.
On her newfound fame, Lay remained humbled: “I’m now afraid to go out … Everyone knows about me. I’m very grateful for Australia’s support–all the messages, go go go. It means a lot.”
Her past obscurity was perhaps owed to the minimal interest and funding given to table tennis in Australia. The ABC reports that one-third of the population in Lay’s home country plays table tennis–here in Australia, “Olympics have often trained in their garages”.
As such, Lay, a mother of two, has expressed gratitude for Jorge and his support.
“He gives me all the support–takes annual leave from work, so he can look after our children while I’m away competing,” she had said in 2017.
Her sixth Olympics appearance was triggered by the withdrawal of Stephanie Sang to which Lay says she was “excited” rather than troubled by the late addition. Australia’s head table tennis coach John Murphy says this speaks to Lay’s character: “It just shows how professional Jian is … She was prepared and ready, even on late notice”.
Lay, at time of writing (August), is currently ranked 141th in the world–Australia’s highest ranked player.
She has recently won bronze in a 3-0 win over Wales in the women’s team tennis tables, with now four silver and four bronze Commonwealth Games medals under her name.
Watch Jian Fang Lay compete in the women’s singles round of 16 tonight (August 5th) from 6.30pm on Channel 7.
Written by Joanna Guelas
Jo is a journalist and writer from Melbourne/Narrm. She is currently in her third-year of her BA (Media Comms/Politics) at the University of Melbourne and is a cadet at the Australian Associated Press. In her spare time, she plays local footy. She can also be spotted behind the camera at local footy matches.