By Bryan Redemske
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
That game you played at the bar, or in your friend’s basement? That was ping pong.
The game you see on TV during the Olympics that features frenetic action, wildly spinning balls and huge forehand smash shots? That’s table tennis. The Omaha Metro Table Tennis Club, which meets twice a week in the Faith Presbyterian Church gym in La Vista, is a practitioner of the latter.
“There is so much thought involved in playing,” club president Rod Cowles said. “In this game, there is such a huge variety of spin, and you must adjust for it or you’ll be spraying balls all over the place.”
The club is open to all and includes a wide range of ages — from 8 to 78, currently. There are more than 40 active members, and each session sees 18 to 20 players. While there are some top-level players each time, beginners are welcome. The wide-open gym houses eight tables, each with plenty of room to play.
“We have one of the better facilities,” Cowles. “In a lot of places, there’s always something suffering; the floor is slippery or the lighting is insufficient. Very often, the space itself is insufficient. But that’s why our club has grown. We have a good space to play.”
The club was founded in 1998 by Gary Crawford, who was a custodian at the church. In 2002, the club merged with the Omaha Table Tennis Club, which was founded by Cowles. Though Crawford passed away in 2009, his club continues with a solid group of regulars each week.
One of them is Sam Pawaskar, who is 12 years old. He calls table tennis his secondary sport — after soccer — and also plays tennis. He won the under-18 division at the Lincoln Open in January and the 13-and-under title at the Cornhusker State Games last summer.
“My dad used to play, so he started showing me how to play,” Pawaskar said. “Soccer helps with the footwork and tennis helps with the strokes, since they’re the same.”
Cowles calls Pawaskar a natural talent.
“He’s progressing so rapidly,” Cowles said.
Sudeep Dotel is also making great strides. The 23-year-old started playing as a child in Nepal and won a number of medals in school. He came to America five years ago for school and is working in information technology.
He won a tournament in Des Moines recently, but knows he still has work to do.
“I need to improve my backhand,” he said. “It could be a lot better.”
Though there are plenty of club members who enter tournaments regularly, many just like to play socially.
“I think that’s the big difference between our club and others,” Cowles said. “It’s more social. You see a lot of doubles being played. It’s not like that everywhere.”
First-time visitors to the Omaha Metro Table Tennis Club can use one of the club’s loaner paddles. Many regulars have their own equipment, though. As with sports like golf or tennis, participants can spend as much or as little as they like for their gear.
The paddle choices number in the thousands. There are several different grips and blade shapes and a number of different woods from which to choose. The rubber coating on the paddle plays a major role in how the ball plays on each stroke.
Smooth, slightly sticky rubber allows players to put a great deal of spin on the ball. Topspin is usually the spin of choice, though backspin is sometimes used as a defensive shot. Two different styles of bumpy rubber allow for further play options. Short bumps, or “pips,” are favored by those who don’t spin the ball a lot. Longer pips help players reverse the spin of their opponent’s shot and send it back with sometimes unpredictable spin.
Finally, anti-topspin rubber is a softer compound that doesn’t produce much spin. It’s typically used for blocking on one side of the paddle.
“The racket doesn’t make the player, though,” Cowles said. “It’s more about using what works for you.”