College ping pong lures Chinese students

Updated: 2014-04-22 11:26

By Jack Freifelder in New York (China Daily USA)

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Table tennis has long been dismissed as a leisurely pastime, but some universities are realizing its value as a collegiate sport and an increasingly effective recruiting tool for international student athletes, according to an official with collegiate table tennis' governing body.

"We have around 3,200 collegiate athletes participating on close to 200 teams, and more than half are not from the United States," said Willy Leparulo, president of the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA). "Table tennis is an Olympic sport and the beauty at the college level is that it's a sport that many are introduced to for the first time."

"The US is known for its basic sports: football, basketball and baseball, so table tennis still has to catch up," Leparulo said. "The sport has positioned itself better than it was five years ago, and the advent of social media puts us in a great position to show the masses what our sport is about."

The 2014 College Table Tennis Championships were held from April 4 through April 6 in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, and Texas Wesleyan University was once again crowned coed champion - the 11th straight title for the school based in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ken Qiu, head coach of the Mississippi College (MC) Choctaws, has seen his team reach the finals in each of the last three seasons, only to lose to Texas Wesleyan.

Five of the six players Qiu brought to the tournament were Chinese, except for Tyler Brogdan, a junior from Alabama, who happens to be studying Mandarin.

For MC's table tennis team, the last three years have had bittersweet finishes but head coach Ken Qiu has tried to keep the focus on the future.

"Every year I'm trying to improve our national ranking," he said on Monday. "We've come from No 15 in the country to No 2 for three straight years, so we just try to take it step by step."

But Qiu has some added help when it comes to recruiting students from China: MC's president Lee Royce.

Royce said his school in Clinton, Mississippi, has 270 international students, and Chinese students make up about three-quarters of that total. He also said that MC "enrolls around 175 to 200 Chinese students every year".

"We launched table tennis as a club sport because a number of Chinese students came to me and asked if they could form a club," Royce said Monday in an email. "Two years later they were nationally ranked, and we are now recruiting students with this sport in mind."

MC's Qiu said students from China were "the first group we courted when our university started our international program".

"We started our relations in Guangdong province," he said. "Currently we have two Chinese players who are No 1 and No 2 in the nation."

Qiu said that some of that credit belongs to his father, a table tennis coach in China who helps identify potential recruits for his son.

In 2008, MC, based in Clinton, Mississippi, finished 14th in the coed tournament. In 2010 and 2011, they took fifth. And the past three years the school has finished second only to Texas Wesleyan.

Jasna Rather, the head coach of the Texas Wesleyan table tennis team, said the problem with recruiting international students inevitably boils down to the issue of scholarships.

"Texas Wesleyan's international department does a great job with tapping into different countries and trying to get more international students," Rather said. "I would love to have even more players from China, not only because you can find some great table tennis players, but also it will bring even more diversity to our campus."

"It's hard to compete with the more well-known sports in the US, but the school really treats us like a real sport," Rather said.

Texas Wesleyan, Lindenwood University in St. Louis, Missouri, and the Universidad de Puerto Rico are the only three NCTTA member schools that offer table tennis scholarships.

 College ping pong lures Chinese students

Mississippi College's Cheng Li (left) serves during a doubles match with partner Yichi Zhang at the 2014 TMS College Table Tennis Championship in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. The tournament, which featured some of the best table tennis players in North America, was hosted by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association and ran from April 4-6. Keith Lam / NCTTA

(China Daily USA 04/22/2014 page1)