COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.
IT may be Ping-Pong to you and me, but for millions around the world, this fast-paced game is "table tennis." It is aerobic, fantastically competitive, and requires enormous skill and training to succeed. It can take 9 to 11 years to train a world-class table tennis star.
Table tennis requires as much dedication as any other Olympic sport (it was added to the Games in 1988), and young Americans are beginning to make the necessary sacrifices to rise in the ranks of champions.
Among these dazzling youngsters is one of the great hopes for the United States Olympic team, a Chinese national now seeking American citizenship, Virginia Sung.
Virginia is a sweet 17, modest, confident, smart. Having begun her training in China at age 8, she is now one of 10 members of the exclusive US Olympic Resident Training Program (RTP) at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo. She emigrated to the US with her parents 2 1/2 years ago.
Life in the US is quite different. In China, Sung earned her way onto the Army team at age 13 - a great accomplishment for a young girl, since in China, thousands play table tennis seriously. "Everyone wants to go to Army team," Virginia said in a recent Monitor interview at the training center. "If you want to go to national team, you have to go to Army team first." She got a stipend as a team member.
In the US, Sung goes to high school during regular school hours, then trains for 2 1/2 hours a day. In the evenings, she studies. There is no time for the rigorous physical training she has been used to, though she still lifts weights when she can and runs at least once a week. Because she must work all weekend to help defray her expenses, she has little time for fun with friends. But though she left her social life in China, she is getting an education here. Also, US training practices tend to be more n urturing than the cut-throat competition in China. In the RTP, she and her 10 fellow table-tennis trainees learn independence, she says. But they are also learning to operate as a team:
"We're like a family, all brothers and sisters. We talk about strategy," Virginia says. "We watch each other, say what needs improvement, what is strong, what is a weakness. We help each other. We are very close."
Table tennis is a game of strategy as well as skill. In most tournaments, a player won't know who his opponent is beforehand, so he has to think on his feet. The paddles are black on one side and red on the other and are played on both sides. Usually, each side is designed to give a particular spin to the ball. The size of the rubber pips on the paddle's face help determine the speed and spin of the ball. Sung's paddle today has long pips on the black side and is smooth on the red side. Every player may examine his opponent's paddle, and high-level players can tell what kind of spin his opponent will put on the ball by noting which color is played.
Sung is a "chopper" - a defensive player - and she holds the racket in the "shake hands" grip. She stands close to the table. Attackers stand far from the table. Choppers can play either attackers or other choppers.
It takes great skill and discipline to make a table-tennis champion. But it takes something more as well.
"I think the most important thing is confidence," says Sung. "Don't be too tired or too nervous. I just try to enjoy the game. In China, there is a lot of pressure: If you lose, it could be you lose your job. Here, if you lose or win, it's only a game."
Sung's coach, Zhenshi Li, a four-time world champion for China, has much praise for his charge: "She practices really hard," says Li; "she is a hard worker and really wants this. We found she was good, but not very consistent. Most important for a `chopper' is to be very consistent. But a chopper can't win if she is not offensive. So we work on attack. Work on her serve, attack. She is good."
COACH Li demonstrates how arduous the sport is - how the waist, leg, the whole body is used to maximize the power of the arm. "The force of the body gives force to the ball," he says.
"Table tennis has been described as a kind of `physical chess,' " says Kae Rader, executive director of the US Table Tennis Association. "You are playing the current ball, but also a few strokes ahead. It's also been called a game of speed and spin. When you see the world-class players on the floor and the kind of speed and spin they get on the ball, it's overwhelming."
Worldwide, table tennis is second only to soccer in popularity. China used to dominate, but Sweden - the site of the world championships next month - is the world power in the sport now, with China and South Korea a close second and third. The US men's team is ranked 15th and the US women's team is 17th worldwide. The sport is non-discriminatory - you don't have to be tall or short - or young, to do well. Many top players are over 40.
Virginia is a great hope for America. It didn't hurt that she was trained in China. "She works hard," says Ms. Browning, "she gets good grades. She is everything you could want your young athlete today."