Suburbs a hub for table tennis talent
People walking past the Schaumburg Park District racquetball courts stopped in their tracks when they saw Arcot Naresh and Spenser Lam playing a whip-fast, high-energy game of table tennis.
"Whoa," one spectator said out loud.
That's the reaction most people have when they watch serious table tennis players in action.
Table tennis, an Olympic sport, is more popular in countries like China and India than it is in the U.S. Overseas, the games are televised and top players get big-money sponsors.
However, in recent years, table tennis has steadily grown in popularity here, and suburban park district clubs report an influx of players. Two American colleges even offer table tennis scholarships.
People sometimes confuse table tennis with Ping-Pong, but as player David Perrine, of Wheaton, explains, they're two totally different things.
"Ping-Pong's a game. Table tennis is a sport," said the 14-year-old Wheaton North High School freshman. "In Ping-Pong, you just kind of hit the ball. In table tennis, you're dealing with many different variables. You're dealing with spin, speed and placement."
Perrine was among dozens of suburban table tennis players to compete in last weekend's U.S. Table Tennis Open, one of the biggest table tennis tournaments in the country. More than 600 players from around the world competed.
Among the dozens of suburban residents competing were Perrine; Lam, a 49-year-old engineer from Schaumburg; Naresh, a 42-year-old software development manager from Lisle; and Maria Kretschmer, a table tennis coach at the Wood Dale Park District.
Naresh finished second in his division, according to USA Table Tennis.
In recent years, the Chicago area has become a hub for table tennis talent, said Lam, a top-ranked player who coaches at the Schaumburg Park District's club.
"Schaumburg has several highly ranked players," he said.
The sport involves more than just hitting the ball back and forth, Lam said. You need fast footwork, excellent hand-eye coordination, strategy and mental toughness.
"So many people think this is like playing chess. There's so much strategy involved," Naresh said, who recently took up running to improve his speed and endurance for table tennis.
Perrine, who ran track and cross country in middle school, described the game as "like playing chess while running."
Lam started playing as a kid growing up in Vietnam, and continued to play and coach when he moved to the United States. Naresh also played as a child growing up in India, but gave it up in his teen years and only recently returned to the sport after finding a co-worker also played. Now he practices after work a few times a week at the Wood Dale Park District or with Lam at the Schaumburg Park District. Naresh and his co-worker, Jason Shaver, even started an online business for professional table tennis supplies, TTXOnline.com.
While Lam and Naresh have hopes of improving their ranking, taking home a trophy, and maybe winning some prize money. Perrine is dreaming even bigger. He has set his sights for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Table Tennis team.
"Compared to most people, I've started late," said the 14-year-old, who discovered the sport in a hotel game room during a family vacation and said it was love at first sight. "I hope to be on an Olympic team one day."