I grew up playing ping-pong as a kid, winning my share of school championships. In San Francisco, I won an employee competition for The Sharper Image, where I was doing some consulting. Today, our Richmond-based Broadbent Selections company culture is as much about my golden retriever coming to work every day as it is about the epic table tennis games stretching late into the night following trade wine tastings. I think of myself as someone who can have a good game with anyone. When I heard the JCC on Monument Avenue sets up tables every Wednesday evening and Saturday afternoon, I trotted along thinking I’d make my name there as some sort of ping-pong whiz kid.
Chun San Li (left) plays Stephen Cooke at the JCC. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
First impressions: six tables. Players lunging, jumping, hunched over to serve, bodies contorted as if they’re inventing new yoga moves. The room reverberating with the kind of squeaks and thuds I associate with a VCU Rams basketball game; the rapid tick-tock of ping- pong balls hitting tables at eye-watering speeds. They play best of five to 11 points, alternating the serve every two points. Winning player keeps the table. My first match of three games, I was up against the formidable Dana Hanson. I scored about two points per game. Second match, I faced one of the club’s two Davids. He charitably conceded three points per game. Third match, I’m up against the other David, who says, “This is pointless, I’ll give you a lesson.”
And so was my introduction to the Richmond Table Tennis Club. Several of its players would rank among this country’s 300 or 400 top players, but one, Tao Li, narrowly missed China’s National Team. She moved to the U.S., where she currently ranks 24th in women’s table tennis, down from her peak of the 17th best player. JCC players David Albright and David Sterling – yes, the Davids who crushed me — both trained in China. Lewis Bragg used to play against U.S. champion Sean O’Neill.
Richmond Table Tennis Club player Tao Li. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
Established around 1977, the Richmond Table Tennis Club settled 15 years ago at the JCC. After soccer, table tennis is arguably the world’s most widely played sport. On any Wednesday or Saturday, you’ll find what may be the most international scene anywhere in Richmond. The games draw players from across the state and beyond. Once, five French-speaking players showed up, each from a different African nation.
The club has about 15 to 20 regular players, several of whom travel the world watching table tennis championships. Its leader, the Swedish-trained Hanson, 67, is gearing up to play in the 2018 over-40s world championship in Las Vegas, where they expect a record-breaking attendance of 5,000 competitors. With a 40-year-old’s physique, Hanson muses, “Table tennis keeps me young; that’s what the girls say, anyway.”
JCC members play for free, but for $5, anyone can play and everyone is welcome, though few return without first seriously upping their game.
As for me, I own two tables and I’m the reigning Country Club of Virginia champion, but at the JCC, I’m what they call a “garage player!”