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Younger players put new spin on sport at Show-Me State Games

Saturday, July 26, 2008 | 9:48 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY - In the Helias High School gym Saturday, players lined up and listened as commissioner William Todd read off the schedule for the day's tournament. Two small black-haired heads, one sporting pigtails and the other a buzz cut, stand out among the adult competitors.

The two heads belong to Olivia Long, 10, and Jimmy Guo, 8.

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Both were nervous as they prepared to take on much older competitors, some three times their age, in the Show-Me State Games table tennis tournament.

Placing 8- and 10-year-olds in a competition against adults has become common in the sport.

"Kids are coming from everywhere," Todd said. "We are getting people of all ages coming out to events that have never been to a tournament and get hooked on the sport."

Two of the top players in the state are under 18. Justen Yao, 15, and his younger brother Alex, 12, both from Chesterfield, have been competing at the national level for a few years and have beaten some of the top players in the nation.

The two are coached by their mother, Sheri Xu, who also trains players in the basement of her Chesterfield home. Xu started out playing competitive table tennis in China at a young age and by 11 she was already a junior champion in Shanghai.

Guo and Long have been attending sessions taught by Xu at least once a week and both quickly realized they enjoy the sport.

"Most people just think this sport is just a game you play in your basement, but people are starting to really get into table tennis," Todd said.

Long became interested after watching a group of table tennis players that came to her school.

"It looked like fun, so I started taking lessons," Long said. "Now I think I want to be a professional tennis player when I grow up."

This is Long's third tournament and she said she enjoys playing against competitors older than her.

"My favorite thing about playing table tennis is I get to experience everyone else's style of playing, so I will gain more experience, and I will be better at returning other people's hits," Long said.

Guo was playing in his second tournament and is climbing in rankings. In June he played in a tournament in which he won five out of his nine matches against competitors twice his age.

After players participate in an USA Table Tennis-sanctioned event, they can receive skill points based on victories over players with a higher skill point level.

Guo has reached a skill level of 724, which is good for his age, but Justen Yao has a skill level of 2,428. The highest ranking for a U.S. is 2,800.

Todd also got involved in the sport at a young age while playing with his father.

"My dad used to be the commissioner of table tennis for the Show-Me Games for 20 years so he passed it along to me," Todd said. "I remember starting to play when I was 2. I could barely stand up, but I would play with my him as he put me on a chair and shot balls at me and I would try to hit them back to him."

As the sport grows in popularity there will be a need for coaches and facilities, Todd said.

High schools such as Rock Bridge and Hickman have recently bought tables and encourage their tennis players to stay fresh by playing table tennis.

Todd, who attended Hickman, said he was the only one who played table tennis in his school, but in the past few years he said he has seen more high schools and colleges adding programs to their curriculum.

"Lindenwood College just bought a new set of tables, and along with several other colleges, are offering scholarships for table tennis," Todd said. "I think once people and tennis players who can't make it into collegiate tennis start realizing they can get a table tennis scholarship, the sport will explode in popularity."

ay’s tournament. Two small black-haired heads, one sporting pigtails and the other a buzz cut, stand out among the adult competitors.
The two heads belong to Olivia Long, 10, and Jimmy Guo, 8.
Both were nervous as they prepared to take on much older competitors, some three times their age, in the Show-Me State Games table tennis tournament.
Placing 8- and 10-year-olds in a competition against adults has become common in the sport.
“Kids are coming from everywhere,” Todd said. “We are getting people of all ages coming out to events that have never been to a tournament and get hooked on the sport.”
Two of the top players in the state are under 18. Justen Yao, 15, and his younger brother Alex, 12, both from Chesterfield, have been competing at the national level for a few years and have beaten some of the top players in the nation.
The two are coached by their mother, Sheri Xu, who also trains players in the basement of her Chesterfield home. Xu started out playing competitive table tennis in China at a young age and by 11 she was already a junior champion in Shanghai.
Guo and Long have been attending sessions taught by Xu at least once a week and both quickly realized they enjoy the sport.
“Most people just think this sport is just a game you play in your basement, but people are starting to really get into table tennis,” Todd said.
Long became interested after watching a group of table tennis players that came to her school.
“It looked like fun, so I started taking lessons,” Long said. “Now I think I want to be a professional tennis player when I grow up.”
This is Long’s third tournament and she said she enjoys playing against competitors older than her.
“My favorite thing about playing table tennis is I get to experience everyone else’s style of playing, so I will gain more experience, and I will be better at returning other people’s hits,” Long said.
Guo was playing in his second tournament and is climbing in rankings. In June he played in a tournament in which he won five out of his nine matches against competitors twice his age.
After players participate in an USA Table Tennis-sanctioned event, they can receive skill points based on victories over players with a higher skill point level.
Guo has reached a skill level of 724, which is good for his age, but Justen Yao has a skill level of 2,428. The highest ranking for a U.S. is 2,800.
Todd also got involved in the sport at a young age while playing with his father.
“My dad used to be the commissioner of table tennis for the Show-Me Games for 20 years so he passed it along to me,” Todd said. “I remember starting to play when I was 2. I could barely stand up, but I would play with my him as he put me on a chair and shot balls at me and I would try to hit them back to him.”
As the sport grows in popularity there will be a need for coaches and facilities, Todd said.
High schools such as Rock Bridge and Hickman have recently bought tables and encourage their tennis players to stay fresh by playing table tennis.
Todd, who attended Hickman, said he was the only one who played table tennis in his school, but in the past few years he said he has seen more high schools and colleges adding programs to their curriculum.
“Lindenwood College just bought a new set of tables, and along with several other colleges, are offering scholarships for table tennis,” Todd said. “I think once people and tennis players who can’t make it into collegiate tennis start realizing they can get a table tennis scholarship, the sport will explode in popularity.”


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