Popular abroad, table tennis grows in Alameda

Popular abroad, table tennis grows in Alameda

Michele Ellson
John So and James Wong play at the Alameda Table Tennis Club on January 5. So uses a shakehand grip, while Wong plays with a Chinese penhold.

It’s quiet in the small Lincoln Avenue gym that once served participants in the local Boys & Girls Club – save the sound of a host of 2.7-gram celluloid balls bouncing off rubber paddles and rows of vast, blue wood tables.

Dozens of adult and youth players dance around tables at what’s now the Alameda Table Tennis Club in their effort to keep those balls in play, while another group of children and teens jog around a second set of tables at the far side of the cool gym.

“A lot of people, their idea of ping pong is what they’re doing in the basement. But it’s actually an Olympic sport,” said Dave Hanson, who co-founded the club with Avi Schmidt in 2008 and now serves as its facilities manager.

Hanson said he and Schmidt started the club “because we wanted to see a more serious table tennis facility in the area that could produce some good players.” And with the aid of some top-ranked coaches, the club has done just that. Youth player Kevin Li, 12, took the US Open boys 9 and under title in 2010, while another player, Irina Hellwig, took the women’s 70+ crown in December at the US National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas.

Hellwig trained alongside the club’s youths in order to tune up her skills for the competition, Hanson said.

“She was doing all the stuff the kids do,” Hanson said. “She worked hard and got her first national title.”

Table tennis – also known as ping pong (though game maker Parker Brothers owns the trademark on that name) – got its start as a parlor game in Victorian England that was ultimately claimed by China as its national sport. And while enthusiasm for the sport and the level of play had been limited here in the United States, that’s changing as more people immigrate to the U.S. – and the Bay Area in particular – from places where the sport is more popular.

The Alameda club opened in 2008 with just one team with six juniors; now the club hosts two teams training 40 youths, and has about 100 adult members who come to play during any given week.

Jennifer Guo of San Leandro began bringing her three boys to the club two years ago; her oldest, now 15, had been playing table tennis with his father before that and her youngest, who is 5, is the club’s youngest player (Hanson said the optimal age to being training is 6).

“This club, they have training for the kids. My kids can come here with other kids,” Guo said.

The Alameda club's trainers include an array of notable players, including Jackie Lee, a San Francisco-born youth and collegiate champ who traveled to Beijing in 2008 as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic team; Zaman Molla, a youth champion and longtime member of Iran’s national team who is now one of the top 20 table tennis players in the U.S.; and Hong Yang, who played and coached in China, which has dominated the sport in Olympic play. Schmidt, the club’s head coach, has won over-40 and over-50 titles here in the U.S.

The club just started an Olympic Hope program early this year, for youth ages 6 to 8 who may seek to play competitively; table tennis became an Olympic sport in 1988. Molla, the club’s high performance instructor, said he’s hoping to coach some of his young charges toward national titles.

“One of the nice things about table tennis is, regardless of your build or your age, you can compete very well,” Hanson said. “We don’t tend to see the kind of injuries you see in football. Seniors can feel comfortable competing.”

Since the game is about quickness and coordination – rather than strength and size – a younger player like Li, who stands less than 5’ tall, can compete against another player who is twice is age and stands 6’6” and “compete on an even footing,” Hanson said. And the gender gap is smaller than other sports: The open division of the club’s 2009 tournament was won by a female player, he said.

Susan Haumeder came to the club after getting “totally bored” with aerobics classes. “I danced in the past, and it’s very similar,” she said of table tennis.

Haumeder said the sport is good exercise for older people and that on visits the club she often sees parents practicing with their children, though the parents “aren’t fast enough.”

Hanson said that in the U.S. the sport was dominated by a handful of older players until 2009, when Michael Landers, then 15, took the national men’s singles title. At the time, he said many considered Landers’ victory a fluke – six of the eight finalists had dropped out to protest what they felt was insufficient prize money – but he said young players have come to dominate the sport stateside since.

Two of the club’s youth team members, 15-year-old Bryant Lin and 16-year-old David Zeng, made it to the quarterfinals of the adult men’s doubles competition in Las Vegas.

The club offers two types of training – one-on-one training and “multi-ball,” where newer players are fed a bucket of balls, one at a time, to learn the paddle control they need to play a competitor. Membership in the club, which is open seven days a week, is $40 a month, and drop-in play is $5; equipment is provided.

In additional to competing nationally, the club’s team travels to up to a dozen regional tournaments each year. Here on the Island, the club hosts weekly round-robin tournaments where players are paired based on their skill level and a monthly “rumble” tournament whose winner can earn $100; the next monthly tournament takes place this Saturday, January 12.

“The level at which these people play is unbelievable,” Haumeder said.

More information on the Alameda Table Tennis Club is available on the club’s website or by calling (415) 287-0352.