(By Darryl Tsao)
The building was quiet. The only thing I could hear were my footsteps, inching closer to a white sliding door. It was my first day training with the Neihu table tennis team. The door slid smoothly open. As I stepped on the red non-slip matting, all eyes were on me. I walked nervously across the room to a row of chairs parallel to the tables. I grabbed a seat, with my palms sweating. As I finished unpacking, the students started to form a line, and started jogging around the tables. I snatched my paddle along with my water, dropped it off at a counter, just in time to trail the pack. The warm up progressed without a single pair of eyes leaving me. Following the warm up, the coach ordered all of us to stand in three separate lines, based on age. In Taiwan, I was still considered to be in middle school. I stood off to one side of the line, away from the rest of the team, hands trembling. After the coach called off the top players to their tables, I was called with two other guys to practice on table 5. Hands still trembling and sweating, I grabbed my equipment off the counter, and walked anxiously toward the table. The rest of the guys were called, and waited patiently at each of their respective tables. I could hear people murmuring about me, but were interrupted by a shower of balls scattering around the floor. Practice had started. Soon, the whole room erupted with the sound of balls being hit back and forth. With three players on each table, not everyone can play at the same time. As the player in front of me stepped down, I knew it was my turn to play. With cold and trembling hands, I started playing. It was a bumpy start, but as my nervousness died down, I was back to full speed.
After the warm up, it was time for drills. Once the coach called out the drill, the room was once again filled with the sounds of balls in play. At first, I had trouble adjusting to the speed and pace of the ball coming over. It felt like all of the balls were already rushing towards me before I could even react. I realized this was nothing like what I have experienced in the past. The sheer quality of the ball made it hard for me to block for them, as it was often so spinny that I would just block out. Practice progressed, and still, I couldn’t get used to balls being this high quality. Additionally, the long training hours took a toll on my stamina. Each day, the team would practice from 2 in the afternoon till 6 at night, and a night session from 7:30 till 9. But as time went on, I adapted to the team’s long and tough training schedules. So has my adaptation to the environment in practice.
Time passed quickly as I came to embrace the challenges that were thrown at me. Weeks became days, days became hours, hours became minutes. I gradually became part of the team, being involved with everyday tasks such as setting up the tables in the school gym. It was also the team’s routine to go to the neighboring middle school, Lishan middle school, since the high school facility was too small for any form of mock matches. As the Taiwanse national trials were coming around the corner, it began to be a routine for the team to go to Lishan to play practice matches, to prepare themselves for the trials. I experienced firsthand how intense these matches were. If a player weren’t focused on your match, the coach would immediately default the player from the match to do fitness on the side. This was used to incentivise the players to play hard and prepare themselves for the challenge in the trials.
Time passed, and the day of the team’s trials came. I went a few days after they did, to watch them compete. As I entered the venue, it was filled with people in the stands. A loud speaker announced the matches, which resonated throughout the arena of colored seats. The sound of people choing and clapping echoed throughout the dome. I found my teammates standing in a row on the bleachers, yelling and screaming in support of their teammate, who was playing a single elimination match. If he lost, he would be out for the tournament. The match went back and forth, but ultimately, our teammate lost. He walked off the court sulkily, and up to the bleachers where we sat. Everyone comforted him, but eventually, tears started rolling down his cheek. What made it worse was that he was in 12th grade, meaning this was his last year in high school. I realized that this is the reality of sports: once you lose your last chance to make a team, it is over. Many wins and losses made the tournament a roller coaster of emotions for the team and I. Things resumed back to normal once training resumed, but my time in Taiwan was coming to an end. It was a painful realization, since I had become friends with basically the whole team. After a heartfelt farewell, I knew that the journey was coming to an end.
Stay “In The Loop” with Butterfly professional table tennis equipment, table tennis news, table tennis technology, tournament results, and We Are Butterfly players, coaches, clubs and more.