As the Mizzou Table Tennis Club warmed up at its fundraising exhibition Tuesday in Memorial Union, they jumped, dived and even fell while the eyes of spectators rapidly followed the ball back and forth across the table.
“We didn’t have time to advertise, but I think we had a pretty good turnout,” captain Alan Chu said. “We’ve never done a show or performance before. My teammates did a very good job.”
The team took third place in its division tournament but placed second in the Midwest tournament. It hosted the performance to raise money for its trip to the national competition, sponsored by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association, this weekend in Rockford, Ill.
“We’ve improved a lot, personally and as a team," Chu said. "We are excited to go to nationals for the first year."
Only three colleges in the country have varsity table tennis teams. MU’s team is a club team. The varsity teams have more resources than MU’s team and are therefore the favorites to win, Chu said. Chu, originally from Hong Kong, said it is difficult because he cannot receive the same level of training in Missouri that he did in China, where the sport is much more popular.
“China pretty much dominates in table tennis,” said Scott Meredith, the only American player on the team. “They get the best training. The top five table tennis players in the world are almost always from China.”
Chu began his table tennis career at only four years old, playing with his mother on a coffee table with tape and magazines serving as a net. Now, he’s more coach than player.
It takes about ten years of practicing intensely to reach the same level as some of these players, said Mohammad Surmadi, who helps train the team at the MU Student Recreation Complex. The best table tennis players in the world, like the ones on the Olympic teams, have a rating of approximately 2800. Chu rates at around 2100, with the rest around 1600.
At the exhibition, which raised about $50, members ran drills, set up games between members of the audience and wowed their guests with fast tricks. When they played an actual game, the competition and intensity was evident. Balls flew into the seating area, ricocheted off the ceiling and knocked down the net.
“I think the idea was just to show people what we do,” Meredith said. “People think of pingpong as something to do in a basement. We wanted to show it as more of a serious sport.”
He said it is a community sport, one that brings people together of all ages and cultures. The teammates can all learn from one another. They have no formal practice times; they just find each other at the MizzouRec when they can, giving directions in both English and Mandarin.
“I’ve seen people get better life skills from table tennis,” Chu said. “I always like to empower people and see them grow. That’s the best, although winning is important too. But the process is more important than the outcome.”