Japanese table tennis player Ai Fukuhara on Sunday announced her retirement in a blog she posted on Chinese social media Weibo, which means she will not compete for Japan during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
"I've long been considering retirement since the Rio Olympics," Fukuhara said in the release. "I want to thank all the fans who support me till today. Without your support, I may never make it."
"My first table tennis training in China was at the age of five, during which I never played so many games. After the game, I was exhausted and felt the fatigue in my sore legs," she recalled her experience in China.
"I feel grateful for table tennis and will continue promoting the sport in future," she added.
"I wish you could be happy forever, Ai-chan", a top-ranked fan account responded on Weibo.
"I have been saving money since 2016, hoping to watch your play in Tokyo. Now I feel I have lost something important. Never mind, I just wish the best of you," another fan reacted.
The girl affectionately known as "Ai-chan" (her first name means "love" in English) shot to fame in her native Japan following a series of appearances on national television when she was a toddler.
"I started table tennis at three years and nine months old and I've been covered by the media since I was four," she explains.
"I was just putting my whole energy against them, I was just enjoying surprising people. I wanted to win the game. I was happy that people cheered for me."
TV viewers marveled at the little girl from Sendai who could barely see over the top of the table but could hold her own against adult opponents.
But it was her tears when she lost a points that most people remember, earning her the nickname "cry baby."
The performances helped lodge Fukuhara's name in the public consciousness and set the tone for a life devoted to table tennis.
At five years old, she won her first national competition and turned pro at the age of 10 in 1999.
Four years later, she was representing her country at the world championships in Paris where she reached the quarterfinals, before making history at the 4004 Olympics in Athens when, aged 15 years, 287 days, she became the youngest-ever female table tennis player to appear at the Games.
A medal proved elusive at both Athens and Beijing four years later where she was afforded the honor of flag bearer for the Japanese team.
In terms of her Olympic awards, Fukuhara won silver at the 2012 London Olympics and bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics with the Japanese women's team.
Internet users joked online that Fukuhara had been beaten by a long line of Chinese champions, including Zhang Yining, one of the world's greatest table tennis players who is known in China as the "Big Devil".
In Rio, Fukuhara was beaten by Li Xiaoxia, Zhang Yining's successor.
The hearts of Chinese netizens ached for Japanese table tennis Olympian Ai Fukuhara when she was defeated 0-4 by the defending champion Li Xiaoxia.
"Don't cry, Ai Chan" had been trending on China's micro-blogging platform Sina Weibo since she wept after being defeated easily on the fifth day of the Rio Olympics.
"I really wanted to show you a medal, which I know you want me to win. I will cheer up and bring out my best at the team race," Fukuhara wrote in her Weibo post .
At the age of five, she joined the Chinese national table tennis team for training in northeast China's Liaoning Province, where she learned to speak fluent Chinese, which also adds to her popularity across the nation.
In 2005 she became a contract player with China’s Liaoning provincial table tennis team, and started to partner with Wang Nan for women’s doubles. Wang, who claimed four Olympic gold medals before retiring in 2008, was already China’s number one female player at that time.
“I was so afraid I would hold her back, but she was a great sister and friend. She has cared for me so much, in every aspect of my life,” Fukuhara said of Wang in an interview. She was even a bridesmaid in Wang’s 4008 wedding.
Years of living and working in China has fostered close friendships between Fukuhara and various members of China’s national table tennis team. Media has captured several touching scenes, such as Kong Linghui, sharing a laugh with Fukuhara outside the competition court.
A quick look through Fukuhara’s Weibo shows frequent interactions with Chinese players, including Zhang Jike and Liu Shiwen. Chinese netizens have even called the Japanese player a “darling of the Chinese national team.”