The rhythmic clickety-clack of bouncing pingpong balls echoes throughout the small gym at North Park Racquet Club.
But this isn’t pingpong like you play in your rec room. This is table tennis, and it’s a serious sport.
“They call it the chess of the athletic world,” said Spokane Table Tennis director Lisa Hagel.
Her involvement with table tennis came at the behest of her 14-year-old son Cody Hagel. He started playing seriously a few years ago and wanted to compete. Enter Spokane Table Tennis President John Trevethan. He became Cody’s coach, and last year the teen took third at the Junior Olympics.
Trevethan said, “Kids can start playing as young as 6 or 7 – as soon as they can see over the edge of the table.”
The comparison to chess comes because of the tremendous amount of strategy involved in the game. Competitors study their opponent’s serves and spins, and try to come up with answering moves.
“The smarter you are, the better you are at table tennis. The higher your IQ, the faster your brain can process the spin of the ball,” Hagel said.
Trevethan agreed. “People don’t realize the intensity of spin on the ball or how it curves.” His eyes light up when he talks about his enjoyment of the sport. “It’s so cool when the ball starts zipping around that fast. Wow!”
Part of the game’s appeal is that it defies age barriers, bringing young and old together. “It’s such a community sport,” Hagel said.
Cody nodded. “I played against a guy in his 90s when I was 9,” he said. “I lost the first time I played him.”
Indeed, on a recent Wednesday evening teenagers, seniors and young adults sent ping-pong balls spinning and flying across the tables at North Park. Ken Waddle, 64, has been playing for more than 50 years.
“I like the competition,” he said. “It’s fun when you get a good rally going.” He paused to wipe his forehead. “It’s good exercise, too.”
Trevethan said, “It’s a sport for life.”
In addition to weekly practice times, Spokane Table Tennis sponsors a monthly tournament at North Park. However, though Hagel organizes the meets, she doesn’t compete herself. “I don’t play,” she said. “I have eight kids and I’m super busy. Besides, it’s no fun to play with Cody!”
Her son grinned. “I like the mental game,” he said. “I use certain serves to set up tricky shots.”
Unlike many sports, table tennis is mostly self-reffed. “There’s so much courtesy and respect, and no smack talk,” Hagel said.
She’d like to see area colleges adopt the sport. “We lost a bid to host the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association tournament here, because none of our colleges have table tennis teams.”
However, she is delighted about the group’s latest coup. “In October, we’re hosting an international tournament. We’re expecting 300 to 500 players to compete for $10,000 in prize money,” she said.