Table Tennis Enthusiasts Working To Raise Sport's Profile Beyond Area Cellars

Article courtesy of @ The Hartford Courant
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Recently Ernest Virgo, left,  held an exhibition to promote the sport of table tennis at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Club where a new league is being established.  (STEPHEN DUNN, HARTFORD COURANT / June 25, 2009)Ernest Virgo, a former Jamaican national table tennis champion and one of the state’s top-seeded players, was taking on challengers inside the gymnasium of the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Club.

There was 67-year-old Larry Choi, who lunged and barked with each stroke. From her wheelchair, Tara Profitt, 44, got in some good shots. There was 13-year-old Edward Huang of West Hartford, who trains in Shanghai during summers. And although Virgo is one of the top-seeded players in the state, his challengers acquitted themselves handily.

The event was the kick-start to the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Club’s new table tennis program, joining a handful of other pingpong clubs in Connecticut. Not everyone can join you have to be a current or former UTC employee or a member of the American Eagle Federal Credit Union. But in a state where formal table-tennis playing has kept a low-profile, players welcome any new addition.

Wilbert Lawrence, director of the Greater Hartford Tennis Club, was at the event preaching the virtues of pingpong.

“This is a lifelong sport,” Lawrence says. “It doesn’t matter what your age is.”

It can be intensely physical, but table tennis may be one of the most all-inclusive sports around. And it’s not the kind of sport that takes a toll on the body over the years.

For Profitt, it was the perfect sport after an accident in high school paralyzed her. She’s planning to travel to Venezuela for the Para PanAm games in Venezuela, where she hopes to qualify for the 2012 Paralympic games in England. She’s currently raising money for the trips.

David Strang of Prospect runs the Connecticut Table Tennis Association, which has clubs in Middletown and Fairfield. Getting Americans interested in table tennis as a formal sport is an ongoing goal, he says.

Right up there with soccer and badminton, table tennis is one of the most popular sports in the world, depending on how you measure such things. As a serious sport, though, it hasn’t had an easy time in the U.S.

Americans don’t tune in to watch the latest matches (though the proliferation of cable sports channels make it possible, depending on how late you’re willing to stay up). Attempts have been made in recent years to make it more TV-friendly increasing the ball size slightly, which creates more wind resistance and slows the ball down.

But even if we don’t give it the same reverence as other countries, there’s no shortage of pingpong tables in our basements.


Little Formal Training

The question for folks like Strang is how to get the game out of the basement. There’s a big difference between learning the game on your table downstairs and being formally trained. In many other countries, schools have formal programs for the sport, much as we do with football or basketball. It’s no coincidence that most of the state’s top-ranked players are originally from outside the U.S.

About half of the people who show up at Strang’s clubs are foreign-born.

“For people in those other countries, table tennis is taken more seriously as a sport,” he says. “Young kids are exposed to it earlier, so they have a higher skill level.”

In the 15 years that he’s been running the clubs, he Strang says there has been a steady incline in membership. Cheaper than a lot of other sports, he’s hoping that the current economy will boost table tennis’ popularity. He might be on to something. It was just one year before the Depression that Parker Bros. marketed its version of the game under the trademarked name “Ping-Pong.” That’s why the serious players prefer the term “table tennis.”

There were some signs at the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Club that a new generation is ready to take up the sport. Adam Chiu and Nate Parker, both 13, traveled from East Hampton to watch the demonstration and get Virgo’s autograph. When they get to high school next year, they plan to start their own club.

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