A Table in Every School

Written by Robin Minnick

Before he ever made his job-related move from New Jersey to Fayetteville, N.C. in 2009, Rich Perez was on the phone making arrangements, finding a location, securing memberships – all in order to ensure the establishment of a table tennis club; ready to have its first meeting the very week he moved in. It’s the measure of his passion for the sport.

Worldwide, table tennis is second only to soccer in popularity, as Rich is happy to tell, partly due to China’s large population and their love affair with the sport. When a Chinese youngster excels in table tennis, or another sport, their whole family’s life can change. They’re sponsored to schools specializing in the sport, and their families even receive financial support. Rich would like to see the United States follow suit – sort of. He’d like to see more support for table tennis as a national sport; he’d like to see it in every school. His love of instruction is nearly as strong as his love for table tennis.

Thursday nights at the Massey Hill Recreation Center, headquarters for the Cape Fear Table Tennis Club, can be crowded.  Usually, there are four tables set up for play, according to Rich. This night, there was an “instructional table” in the back room, as well as five tables set up for play in the main room. Rich and league coach Tony Murnahan work with three youngsters in the back.

“Hold the paddle right…if it’s too close, open it a little bit,” instructs Rich, a lilt in his voice. “Get the snap in it, too. High five!”

Tony directs 6-year-old Samuel’s returns while Sai, also 6, collects the orange ping pong balls they use. Sai keeps up a running commentary, “Surprise that ball! Kill it! Kill it! Surprise that ball!”

When 9-year-old Susanna takes over, the level of play changes. She returns the ball readily, keeping the volley going for a dozen turns. There are 10 kids training at the Club, and Rich is happy to report that Susanna is rapidly becoming a local favorite. She and Samuel are his children.

They start kids at 5 or 6, the usual age for hand-eye coordination to kick in. More important than age is the player’s ability to balance a ball on the face of the paddle. They start with trying to keep the ball on the paddle for 10 seconds, then 20, 30, 40, etc. – up to 90 seconds. The next step is being able to bounce the ball up and down with the paddle.

“Table tennis is the only sport where a 6-year-old can be competitive with an 80-year-old,” explains Richard. “It requires only reflexes, hand-eye coordination, and knowledge of the spin.”

“It’s a workout for your body and your brain,” he adds. The combined workout sends extra oxygen to the brain and even helps develop brain cells. New research shows playing ping pong can ease or delay symptoms of Dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Most of us are familiar with the game; many grew up playing it. Few of us, however, take it as seriously as some of the players do here.

Cape Fear Table Tennis Club is sanctioned by the United States Association of Table Tennis (USATT). It holds three-four tournaments per year. Players work their way up the ladder via tournaments, earning ratings which are used to place them in competitions.

Rich’s main goal is to build players; whether they compete for honors, or play for fun. There’s no difference between the game referred to as ping pong and the sport of table tennis, except the degree of gravity.

“Ping pong,” reminds Rich, “is what it’s called when you’re just fooling around in the basement. If you’re serious about it, it’s table tennis.”

He’s serious enough to make his own paddle. A cheap paddle costs about $100. The materials he uses cost upwards of $250. Both sides are covered in rubber, which can run from $30-75 for each piece. The wood – bamboo, cypress, koto, or the most popular, hinoki – can cost $250 alone. The middle layers consist of a carbon fiber fabric with sponge in between. The materials makes the game more spin-based.

Table tennis is the only sport where players can compete with whatever rating they have. That is part of what led Richard to challenge himself to try out for the USATT National Team. The other, he confesses, was that it was a joke. He didn’t expect to be taken seriously, but within a short time of teasing his friends to sponsor him at a tryout in Raleigh, N.C., he had a fully-funded GoFundMe account, and a shot at the team. He entered, despite the fact that his ranking of 1,500 was 1,200 behind the national champion’s, and 600 points behind those of his direct competitors.

The March 25 trials were held in Morrisville, N.C., home to the biggest club in the nation, the Triangle Table Tennis Club; 25,000 square feet of professional, full-time playing space. The rules require a player to compete against three others to work his/her way through a match. Unfortunately, Richard was the first out.

“It’s about what I expected. My goal was to win one game, and I came close, but…” he shrugs. He’d given it a shot, and he had fun. “I got to pretend I was a pro for a day.”

Would he like to try it again? The answer is at first an uncertain “yes.” He says he’d have to start now to be in training – with a strict regimen of diet and exercise – like a boxer – if he’s going to try again. Then, he suddenly looks up – his eyes brightening – and says, “No, wait. I am. I’m going to do that.”

SIDEBAR

As a rule, ARRAY writers don’t put themselves in their stories. However, when the interview was done, Rich Perez turned the tennis tables on us and, after introducing us to proper paddle positions, he invited – well, insisted – we play a little.

It had been a long time since we played during the first years of our marriage, but it came back. Dave’s use of his left hand forced me into returning the ball with a backhand. Neither of us could figure where to stand at first, or how to serve the ball. We persevered, with Rich’s encouragement, and spent about 20 minutes volleying, dropping, fetching, and serving. Without noticing the effort, we worked up a small sweat and raised our heart rates. No wear-and-tear on the feet or spine, and a lot of laughter at ourselves.

It was definitely fun, and that was Rich’s gift to us; a gift of his passion for a sport that he simply wants to benefit everyone.

Paddle positions:

Upright on edge (or perpendicular to the table) is Neutral.

Turned slightly forward (or inward towards the center) is Closed.

Turned slightly back (or outward) is Open.

The Cape Fear Table Tennis Club,

a USATT sanctioned club meets

Mondays and Thursdays, 6:45-9:00 p.m. at

Massey Hill Recreation Center

1612 Camden Road, Fayetteville, N.C., 28306

New players of all ages are welcome.

Photos & Captions

Please credit all photos: by Dave Minnick

Photo
  Caption

by Dave Minnick

  Ping Pong balls!

by Dave Minnick

  Rich Perez trains his daughter Susanna

by Dave Minnick

  Susanna Perez skillfully returning a serve

by Dave Minnick

  Sai Meka training hard

by Dave Minnick

  Rich Perez in action

by Dave Minnick

  Rich Perez practicing for a weekend tournament

by Dave Minnick

  Samuel Perez at practice

by Dave Minnick

  Rich’s latest paddle

by Dave Minnick

  A busy night with the Cape Fear Table Tennis Club at the Massey Hill Recreation Center

by Dave Minnick

  Rich Perez

 

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