For starters, it's not 'Ping Pong'
The first thing you learn from table tennis players is that you do NOT call it ping-pong. It is table tennis.
My interest in table tennis started when I left high school. My parents celebrated by purchasing a ping-pong table. (Do you call it a table tennis table?) Anyway, my two younger brothers quickly became experts. When I returned from college on holidays I was soundly humiliated at the hand-held paddle of my younger siblings.
My interest continued to develop. My skills never did.
Fast forward to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, my first. A friend went on and on after watching the table tennis. “It was incredible!” he raved, “The most amazing thing I have EVER seen!”
The Olympic scheduler always has table tennis competing at the same time as swimming. While I was focused on winning a bunch of swimming medals I was missing out on the most incredible, amazing thing. You might think I’m joking, but my mind would always create ways to sneak in to see the table tennis in between the prelims and semi-finals and finals that my swimming required.
Alas, my commitment to swimming never allowed me to stray from the pool.
“It was unbelievable, as I recall,” was all my brothers offered after attending the medal rounds of table tennis at the Sydney 2000 Games. They both both nodded and smiled.
It was especially hard in Athens. The U.S. swim team stayed in the same building as the table tennis team. I was in a room right over one of the U.S. table tennis stars! We would depart in the morning, heading in different directions, and I would long to get on the other bus heading to the table tennis venue.
We were waiting for our buses one morning, and I boasted that I was aware, well aware, that the sport is NEVER referred to as ping-pong. It’s table tennis. They nodded in agreement. Then took a step back.
In Beijing I will get to watch, live and in-person, that most incredible, amazing, unbelievable thing called Olympic table tennis.
I’m really looking forward to it!
It was a year after the 2004 Athens Olympics, and I was sitting in my friend’s apartment on the lower east side of Manhattan. It was a beautiful day. My friend, who had just purchased a new set of table tennis paddles, said “I’m going to call my friend, and when he gets here, we’ll go down to the park and play some ping-, uh, sorry, table tennis.”
His friend is a somewhat famous writer for Rolling Stone. He showed up, we had a beer and talked some small talk. Then, as we were leaving, I asked him, “So, are you any good at table tennis?”
He turned to me, looked me square in the eyes, and with a straight face said “Table tennis is the one thing in life I do really, really well.”
I had just met him, so I didn’t know if he was joking or not. It turns out he wasn’t.
For years I kept thinking about what he had said. Wouldn’t it be great if all of us knew the one thing in life that we were really, really great at?
-- Gary Hall Jr.
Photo: George Braithwaite of the United States volleys with China's Laing Geliang during a table tennis match on June 12 at the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda -- 37 years after the two men participated in a week of table tennis exhibition games in China. Credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times
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