April 20, 2007

Table Tennis Knows No Borders

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Nothing brings people together like sports games do. So while our university continues to engage in heated discussions about whether program houses promote diversity, members of Cornell’s table tennis club already know they are a sterling example of the cultural richness of our campus.
“No one ever says, ‘I don’t like ping pong,’” said Felicia Chiu ’07, outgoing president of the table tennis club. “Everyone plays. Everyone has a ping pong table in their basement.”
According to Chiu, it is the universality of this sport that is partly responsible for the eclectic ethnic mix of the team; although there are only about 30 active members, they hail from “all corners of the world,” she said. The club has members from Thailand, Colombia, Vietnam, Singapore, Russia, Korea, India and China, to name a few. By some measures, it is the second most popular sport played around the globe, immediately behind soccer.
For Kwan Sukhumavasi grad, this sport appeals to many people because it’s “a quick sport,” referring to the ease that new players have when picking up its basic rules. Biqing Liang grad had no formal training, but after playing just for fun as a teenager, she won a district-wide tournament during her first year in college.
“Everyone can play ping pong,” Liang added.
And unlike most sports played at Cornell, ping pong does not depend on the season.
“It’s an indoor sport; you can play it whenever you want,” Sukhumavasi said. She began playing ping pong when she was 12 years old, and attends the team’s tournaments and practices not only because it keeps her motivated, but also because she gets to “learn about different countries and different fields of studies.” Half the team consists of undergraduates, while the other half are graduate students, facilitating greater interaction between two typically disparate student groups at Cornell.
“When we go to different universities to compete, we stay together and get to know each other very well,” she said. “There’s no barrier to learning more about each other because we all have something in common.”
Cornell’s table tennis club, although funded only by the SAFC, is just as active as many varsity sports on campus. A glance at their record, however, seems to indicate the team is arguably more successful in their field than some of the most popular sports at Cornell, such as ice hockey. This year, the team won the upstate New York divisional championships. The club also competed in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association National Championships last month, with the men’s team coming in 5th place and women’s placing 4th, which is consistent with its performance the past few years. According to Chiu, some team members are nationally ranked players of their home countries.
Although the team’s core group is about a dozen students, its twice-weekly practices are well attended by many who are interested in playing recreationally. While the club usually has six tables reserved for use, there is frequently a long line of people waiting to play, according to Xing Xiong ’10, incoming president of the club. Even former Cornell president Hunter R. Rawlings III has visited the club a few times, according to Prof. Chen Jian, history.
“Rawlings played very well,” Chen said.
The wide range of skill level and interest, however, only brings the club’s members closer together. Xiong, for example, started playing in 9th grade, and even had a dedicated coach to guide him through high school tournaments. Julian Kang ’10, on the other hand, began in 11th grade, and comes to the team’s practices to improve at a sport he loves. At practice last week, Kang played Chen, the club’s advisor, for several rounds, which is nothing out of the ordinary for them.
Despite the fact that the season is now over for the club, it continues to hold twice-weekly practices. They are also co-sponsoring a table tennis fundraising tournament with Kappa Delta sorority this Saturday evening at Helen Newman Gym. All proceeds will go to Prevent Child Abuse America and Family and Children’s Services of Ithaca.