Thursday | July 02, 2015
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‘Athletic chess’

With simultaneous play on eight tables, the Thelma Parker Memorial Gym in Waimea resonated with the clicks of volleys, smacks of paddles and spirited footfalls during the first day of the 2013 Big Island Open.

The table tennis tournament, held annually since 2008 and sponsored in part by the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation, this year hosted 31 athletes from throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the mainland on the morning of April 6.

Saturday’s play opened with a “super round robin.” Three players on seven tables, faced off for first, second and third place. Groups of seven were then formed, matching players by how they fared in the preliminary round. Competition was expected to continue for three hours until winners were crowned in those groups.

Other events included contests for seniors, doubles, USATT-rated singles and elite players.

Tournament Director Len Winkler said the popularity of table tennis — “the most played sport in the world” — has been growing in the last decade as more people realize its aerobic benefits — playing for an hour can burn between 600 and 700 calories — and accessibility.

It has even gained adherents in Hollywood.Will Smith, Winkler said, has a table in his trailer when making a movie. Actress Susan Sarandon is in the business of making table tennis “chic.” She is a co-owner of SPiN, table tennis “social clubs” located in major cities, including New York and Los Angeles.

In addition to its physical benefits, Winkler, the only USA Table Tennis-certified referee in the state, refers to table tennis as a “brain sport,” citing a Japanese study that discovered a link between playing the game and slowing the progress of, or even preventing, dementia.

It’s “athletic chess,” Winkler said. Players must know their opponents’ moves before they make them to be in position to return volley. Especially in older players, he added, the sport can improve hand-eye coordination and sharpen reflexes.

Ka‘u High School physical education teacher Angie Miyashiro will present “Got Pong” at the upcoming American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance National Convention and Expo in Charlotte, N.C. The Big Island Open entrant said her goal is to promote “pingpong as a life activity that all kids can play.” From her research, she has learned table tennis activates five areas in the brain at once and can be beneficial for students who lack focus and even those with Attention Deficit Disorder.

A world-class distance runner — she holds a Kona Marathon age-division record — Miyashiro is in her second “serious year” of table tennis. She compares the sport to “doing chess, running and boxing all at once.”

She said table tennis, with its “many technicalities people don’t realize,” helps her with marathon running, especially with improved mental discipline. Unlike running, she added, “you can’t get in a zone” with table tennis.

Miyashiro participated at two national table tennis tournaments within the past year. Squaring off against high-level players in convention centers full of tables was quite different from what she experiences in Hawaii.

“Competition is getting better on the Big Island,” she said.

Phong Pham entered play at the 2013 Big Island Open as the highest-rated player in the state. Pham, a Vietnamese law student studying at the University of Hawaii, said the sport and his chosen profession have many similarities.

“As a lawyer, we do a lot of analysis,” he said. “In pingpong, we have to learn to analyze the opponent. … In pingpong, it’s to spot weakness in the opponent;” in the courtroom, it’s to find a weakness in a legal argument.

“In pingpong,” Pham said, “the player with a lot of power and force doesn’t always win. Physical strength is not as important as strategy.”

Pham has studied in the United States for four years and said his involvement in the pingpong community has helped to bridge cultural differences.

“Pingpong brings people together to learn from each other in sport and in life,” he said.

Pham won the open elite division and took second in the super round robin events.

Sylvia Wilson was a spectator, watching — and recording — her husband Reggie’s matches. In 2011, in search of new players to challenge, the Memphis, Tenn., resident decided to enter the Big Island Open. Besides, Sylvia said, “it was a good time for vacation.”

He won the super round robin and open elite contests that year and returned to defend his titles in 2012.

The Wilsons plan to return next year, not only for the competition, but also for the friends the couple has made here.

More than 40 players competed in last year’s Big Island Open, Winkler said. He expects to see some of the Oahu-based athletes who didn’t attend at the inaugural Aloha World USATT tournament in May on Oahu — about 200 players are already signed up to participate, many from Japan.

Big Island athletes will have another opportunity for tournament play at the USATT-sanctioned Hawaii Island Open slated Oct. 18 to 20 at the Hilo Boys and Girls Club.