The Road Traveled
Courtesy of USA Table Tennis / by Joe Windham
My name is Joe Windham, former competitive table tennis player in the 1960’s and 70’s. After retiring, I returned to table tennis at the age of 58 in 2014. Participating in 10 consecutive US Nationals/Opens from 1964 to 1974, I also competed in tourneys from California to Philadelphia and Canada to Texas during this ten year span. From age 7 to 17, I had the honor of playing against some of the greats, such as, DJ Lee, Rick and Dan Seemiller, Bernie Bukiet, Jack Howard, Paul Raphael, Ray Guillen, Steve Hammond, George Brathwaite, Perry Scwhartzberg, Boggan’s, Richard Hicks, Dave Sakai, Alex Tam(Tan Cho Lin), Hooshang Bozorghzadeh and et al. These experiences and the personalities behind them remain etched on my table tennis memory.
After this 35 year respite from table tennis, my journey back into table tennis started by walking into Kansas City Table Tennis 20 months ago. What I observed was remarkable. The club has twelve tables, situated on two gym floors, 25 ft high ceilings, barriers, and levels of play ranging from 1000 to 2300. The 1800 and above players seem to have claim to the first six tables, while the under 1800 players occupy tables 7-12. It meets 3 days a week for open play, one day a week for player improvement, and up until recently KCTT was run by individual volunteers.
In an effort to grow from an informal group of individual enthusiasts into a structured, formalized club during the last year, KCTT created a web site, elected a board, gained 501c status(nonprofit), opened an escrow account, completed their first league, and plans to hold a two star tourney April 15-17th. KCTT is not just travelling down the road, it is moving down the road at “Zoom-Zoom” speed. KCTT has grown from a loose knit group into a formal club, welcoming and promoting table tennis on all levels.
I travelled to play in several different table tennis clubs in the past few months to help gain some insight into the different table tennis cultures/business models: Morrisville, NC; Milwaukee, Wisc; Atlanta, Ga; San Diego, Ca; Minneapolis, Minn; St. Louis, Mo; and South Bend, Ind. In fairness to the clubs mentioned, I walked into each one of them unannounced, except South Bend Table Tennis Club, where I scheduled my visit to coincide with participating in a player improvement clinic. All the clubs were accessible, and the staffs were accommodating.
The clubs visited were similar, yet, very different from one another. The clubs vary in size, structure, and purpose. For example, Triangle Table Tennis in Morrisville, NC has well over 30 tables, robots, practice balls at each table, opened 7 days a week, complete with workout gym, pro shop, pro staff, Table Tennis Hall of Fame, and is a for profit business. It is an international level club, with designations as a USATT National Center of Excellence and as an ITTF Training Center Hot Spot, with multiple high level coaches working to develop future champions; yet, under Tom Gabriel (the Center Manager) all who walk through the front door feel welcomed, including local ping pongers. Triangle Table Tennis is uniquely balanced to advancing table tennis recreationally on a local level, and developing competitive players on a national and international level.
It would be remiss not to mention two other Triangle Table Tennis Employers: Pro Alec Carney, and Owner/President Ann Campbell. Alec is a ranked player and teaching pro, who is committed to advancing the game one student at a time. Ann Campbell is very gracious with her time, taking time out to meet guests, and even proudly giving tours of Triangle’s world class facility.
I encourage each of you reading this article to take a road trip to Triangle Table Tennis in Morrisville, North Carolina. They offer monthly tourneys, clinics, weekly leagues, and open play daily. We need this club to succeed and the club needs us to survive. You will be impressed!
Milwaukee table tennis is played out of two locations on a part time basis with multiple tables. It has a couple of teaching pros and a very impressive team of volunteers promoting table tennis throughout Wisconsin, led by a dynamo named Linda Leaf. It is a nonprofit organization, according to Doug Wruck, Executive Board Member and super volunteer. In our discussion, he excitedly shared how table tennis is now played in high schools, culminating the season with a state championship. During my visit, the club organized a Halloween tourney for both kids and adults, in which I was invited to participate. Everyone was encouraged to play in costume. It was quite the experience, particularly, with the 15 or so kids, all of who played in their costumes. What a hoot!
The Atlanta International Academy of Table Tennis was the outlier among the clubs visited. I walked in unannounced with the intent of getting a feel for the club by picking up a game with a local member. Upon walking in the club, I was greeted by a club manager. He encouraged me to sit down and wait to play with one of the five or so pros currently giving lessons on the eight of the ten or twelve club tables. The intensity and focus of the training was very laser like. I sat mesmerized for almost two hours. A unique balance between multi ball training and one to one instruction seemed to characterize the two hour training session. It was very physical and equally technical. Table tennis is taught like it is a martial arts form with a ball and paddle. The student ages ranged from 6 or 7 to 16 or 17, with an equal number of boys and girls. I was told the 5 teaching pros were rated between 2550 and 2850. Hanging on the walls of the club, were articles with pictures of students who have won regional/national titles. On the scale of recreational to competitive clubs, this club is a system based, technical training academy designed to graduate champion table tennis players.
San Diego, Minneapolis, and St. Louis table tennis clubs are similar to each other. The clubs meet multiple times throughout the week at different locations. The majority of the attending players at the clubs visited range from 1000 to low 2000. The tables were set up by the incoming players, and secured at the completion of play each session by participants. The playing conditions were good and the members seemed intimately familiar with each other. These clubs, run by individual volunteers, successfully organize leagues, tourneys, and open play. It is quite a feat.
Salt Lake City Table Tennis Club is located in an industrial area in a very accessible location off of the highway. There were 6 to 8 tables, with people waiting to play. There were a couple of tables where some instruction/training was taking place. But for the most part, players were challenging each other to matches, with the winner remaining at the table. The members could not have been friendlier and the environment more accepting. It was apparent Salt Lake City could benefit from a larger, more open facility.
I want to share a special shout out to Dan Seemiller and his South Bend Table Tennis Club. I took a group of KCTT players to South Bend for a player improvement clinic on a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Dan and his son, Dan Jr., were receptive and very committed to our improvement. The club was located in an industrial area. The playing conditions were very Spartan, that is, functional. The tables were in great shape with barriers, the flooring excellent with high ceilings, and the background formed a good contrast for playing competitive table tennis.
But what stood out more than the facility, was the Seemiller’s. It goes without saying, that the Seemiller name is iconic in modern table tennis. As a tandem, Dan and Dan Jr systematically broke down each of our games, and then helped us rebuild them. We alternated between time on the table doing drills, sitting in a classroom studying chalkboard diagrams, and taking notes from Dan’s lecture on technique, strategy, and application.
Dan Jr. played the role as Dan’s practice partner, presenting us visuals of proper technique and effective application. He also filmed us at the end of the clinic, sending each of us our own copy, complete with a critique of our games and strategies on how to improve them. They work together very effectively. I strongly urge each of the clubs out there to attend or host a Seemiller player improvement clinic – the KCTT members enjoyed it immensely and found it very helpful to their further development.
Table tennis is played daily in this country from coast to coast. There are clubs more social than competitive and more public than private. Clubs operate as nonprofit ventures to profit driven businesses. Some clubs are more informal in structure, operated by individual volunteers; while other clubs are LLC’s, guided by a constitution, and led by an elected Executive Board, complete with an escrow account. They all share a passion for promoting and playing the sport table tennis.
In closing, United States table tennis clubs face obstacles in their ongoing development. These obstacles must be viewed as opportunities. Google claims 20 million people play ping pong in the United States. Only 9,000 members play table tennis in our clubs across the United States. Clubs need to build a bridge between recreational ping pong and competitive table tennis to bring 19 million more players into our clubs. We need each other. The business model must promote ping pong, and, yet, continue to develop professional level play. We can look at golf and tennis clubs, where programming is designed to create individual champions, however, the vast majority of club members play their sport for fun, exercise, and social reasons. Clubs need the revenue from recreational players, and the sport needs champions to promote it on a national/international level. Clubs could benefit from acting small by supporting recreational/organized play, but dream and act big enough to help produce future champions. The road travelled for me in table tennis continues onward. Let’s all get on the same road together to grow this sport – thanks for riding a long.