“He beats me all the time. Just not tonight,” Bruce Bower smiled. He took a turn sitting on the side lines at Olympic Heights Community High School in Boca Raton where, every Monday and Wednesday, Table Tennis is organized under the auspices of the Palm Beach County School District. Bruce lives in Delray Beach and still, after 70 years in America, retains his English lilt. “Table tennis is so much more popular around the world than it is in the U.S.,” he added.
“It helps your hand-eye coordination. People don’t realize that it is good exercise and how demanding it is. It is good for health and is fun,” Bruce’s opponent said. David Alboukrek is a rheumatologist. He attended the U.S. Table Tennis open in Ft. Lauderdale 17 years ago. “I loved the game and started to look for a place to play. They said go to Boca High School. I showed up and Coach Jose said, ‘OK get a racket.’ He was patient. I eventually played in the U.S. open and came in second place in my division,” David related, then went back to a table to take on another opponent.
There were eight tables set up in the high school dining room. The area was surrounded by carefully marked and taped cardboard walls created from flattened boxes. The cardboard walls keep players from having to chase errant ping pong balls too far.
“I like the physical exercise. I can’t play soccer as I did when I was a younger man. With table tennis you have to anticipate all the time.” Bruce Bower was intent, studying the game David was playing with a new opponent. “I try to keep myself as young as possible,” he added.
The regulars are a diverse group of young and older players. “I started playing on Martha’s Vineyard 2 ½ years ago. I’m a Pilates trainer. They were playing in the same gym. This is injury free. It is much better for me than tennis. They call it aerobic chess,” Eddie Parker said. Eddie spends most of the year living in Boynton Beach, his summers back on Martha’s Vineyard.
“I find this a magic cure,” Eddie laughed holding up a ping pong ball. He looked on the Internet for local table tennis clubs and found the program at Olympic Heights in Boca. “I hit pretty much every day. I have a table at home. It is very meditative. It is physically demanding,” he added.
Table Tennis and Ping Pong are both correct names for the sport. There are many other names for the game that began in England with the craze for lawn tennis. The first patent for the game was filed in 1885. Originally played with string rackets and cloth-wrapped rubber balls, the game advance considerably with the invention of the celluloid ball around 1900. The sound of the ball on the rackets occasioned the name Ping Pong trademarked in England in 1900. It was brought to the U.S. by Parker Brothers, the game maker. Federations were created and championships organized. It is an Olympic sport that the Chinese conquered winning all the gold medals at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.
“This is a community school. We encompass the community with educational services for adults. We offer yoga, table tennis, art, theatre, piano. We bring the community to our school,” Stacey Belton, Assistant Principal at Olympic Heights Community High School, said.
“We want to bring people together to learn and grow. There is a registration fee that goes to the school district. There is no residency requirement. Anyone can participate…I was a basketball player, give me a bigger ball,” Stacey laughed as she watched the intense play.
“It is an aggressive game, it’s a power game. It is so much more than tennis. It’s faster. When I started playing I didn’t want to play these guys,” Eddie Parker said, adding, “I’m going into my third year and it is finally computing on me until it becomes a reflex. It is for all ages. You see kids here and many older people.”
Jose Gonzalez-Posada is the coach at Olympic Heights. They use folding tables that have been donated, costing the school board not a cent. Players bring their own rackets and balls. “I started playing as a kid in Cuba. I attended the American school in Havana. On break I heard a ping pong ball bouncing on a table. Kids were playing. I was 14 and I fell in love with the game. I arrived in the U.S. in 1983 and never stopped playing. I began coaching a few years ago as a volunteer,” Jose said.
One of the players, Jacqueline Robertson-Shaw, a Delray Beach resident originally from Sydney, Australia, says, “I was bullied into it. I have a friend passionate about table tennis. She pushed me and I had to bloody do it.” Jacqueline laughed. She was teased by another player waiting a turn to play a winner coming off the court.
“I came here two years ago. Jose is a wonderful coach. None of this would be here without him. I can only manage one night a week. I’m an old gal.” Another laugh. Clearly the players enjoy the sport and competition as well as the company of a jovial fraternity of dedicated enthusiasts.
“It’s addictive. It seems such an inane ‘ditsie’ game. The more you get into it the more you see how mental a game it is. It is misleading. It looks simple. There is so much to learn. There is so much to it. I love this place. Everyone is a different nationality, I can’t think of a country not represented,” Jacqueline said looking around the room.
Al Schiffrin is from Boca Raton. He says he learned ping pong when he was eight years old, played in college. He became a music teacher in New York. One of his colleagues had a table in his basement. Al became a member of the Long Island Table Tennis Association. Then a long lapse between games. “Forty years elapsed, like this,” the former teacher snapped his fingers.
“About three years ago my wife showed me the booklet that came in the mail from the Palm Beach County School Board listing adult education programs. It included table tennis. I showed up,” Al smiled.
“I enjoy playing. I enjoy people. It is a lovely, civilized game. It is a social experience. It is physically helping me for balance, eye-hand coordination,” this former music teacher added.
“There is something about hitting that ball. The endorphins start exploding. There is very good sportsmanship here,” Eddie Parker echoed the sentiment shared by all the players.
Table tennis is in its thirteenth year as part of the County School Board program. To join simply turn up Monday and Wednesday nights in the dining room of Olympic Heights Community High School. All levels with coaching hints run from 6:00 to 7:30 PM. Advanced play begins at 7:30 and runs until 9:45 PM. Registration for a term costs $90. To find out more go to their Website www.edline.net/pages/Olympic_Heights_Community_HS/