The only real experience I have with ping-pong is the kind in which you throw the balls into cups of beer in an effort to get drunk faster, which I guess is technically beer-pong - not ping-pong. During my college years in the good old Black Hills of South Dakota, there were weekly beer pong tournaments at the local sports bar, and the place was always packed with undergrads. South Dakotans love to get drunk. We like it so much that we make up games with just about anything to help us get drunk faster. Dice and ice cube trays are effective tools - even watching television can be turned into a drinking game. But on beer pong nights students would go round and round, drinking cups of beer garnished with floating plastic balls that have been handled by every frat boy in town. Maybe that's why I only played once.
I thought my ping-pong days were long gone until I met the Bend Table Tennis Club. I soon learned that it's not a "game" called ping-pong, rather it's the sport of table tennis. I showed up early and met with the club president, Sean Purdy, who works as a financial advisor at Northwest Mutual Financial in Bend. In his free time, however, he's a table tennis junkie. Munching a shiny, scarlet apple, Sean gives me a history lesson about the club. It began about four or five years ago and interestingly enough, the club has been in four different locations over the years, including the short-lived West Bend Tennis Center and as far away as the Powell Butte Community Center. After the closure of the West Bend Tennis Center, the Bend Table Tennis Club settled in at the Boys & Girls Club in downtown Bend, which seems to perfectly suit their needs.
"Boys & Girls Club is not really interested in racking up the big bucks. They're here for the community; we're here for the community," said Purdy.
Now seemingly settled in a permanent location, the club is preparing for its biggest event of the year - the second-annual table tennis tournament that will determine bragging rights for the next 12 months in the Bend table tennis community. If you're interested but need to shake off the rust, there's still opportunity. The table tennis club meets every Monday from 6 to 9 p.m and you adults can play for $5, while kids and seniors can get on the table for $3. With only a few weeks left before the annual tournament, several players were warming up for the competition on a recent Monday night. Purdy plays every week and, as I soon witnessed, has some mad pong skills.
"I played when I was a kid. I have a bad knee so I can't do a lot of sports that I want to play. [Table tennis] is great for people who have injuries... It keeps your mental facilities sharp and your body fit, but you can play it at a lesser level if you want," said Purdy.
Over the years, 250 members have joined the club's mailing list. Today, there are about 50 active players, including the nine members of the voting committee that keeps the club up and running. The club uses the gym located upstairs in the Boys & Girls Club. It's spacious, with a stage toward the back and basketball hoops on either end. They set up eight tables, allowing 16 people to play at a time - more if you play doubles. Long sheets of cardboard stand on the floor, weaving between the tables in an effort to keep balls from flying around the room. On this Monday, about a dozen people came out to play. It was not the group I expected to meet. If I had to guess, the ages within this group ranged from late '20s to early '60s. According to Purdy, there are younger kids, and some senior citizens who show up on any given night. On this night, some players came in street clothes, some in gym attire. Some were tattooed, others appeared to be business professionals.
Out of the 12 players present, three were women. Kim Sonder and her friend, Eileen, had been playing for a while as I wandered around trying not to get ponged in the face by balls zinging by at rapid speeds. Soon, an attractive, athletic woman arrived and told me her name was Nancy. She bounced around, chomping on a stick of gum, while scouting out the other players in the gym. She soon challenged Eileen to a match and I took the opportunity to chat with Sonder, who works as an office manager at The Environmental Center, and has been playing table tennis on and off for 25 years in casual settings, but never in a league or club. She said she began playing with the table tennis club about a month ago.
"[I play] for the socialization, exercise and because it's excellent for the memory. It's an inexpensive sport and lots of fun... I would like to see more people come out to play," Sonder said.
Then my worst fear is realized - the ladies suggest we play a game of doubles. Nancy insists that I need to play to understand the game, so I hesitate for only a moment before grabbing a paddle and hopping behind the table. After a brief lesson, we decided to just bat the ball around for a bit. I gained confidence with each serve and may have even learned some new moves. I'm not sure how skilled I was, but the ladies were very encouraging and I had a blast learning the ropes. The club is welcoming to newcomers, and I would feel comfortable showing up again to advance in the game of beer-less pong, which as it turns, is a lot more fun.
The Bend Table Tennis Club's 2nd Annual Tournament
10 a.m. Saturday, March 19, Boys & Girls Club of Central Oregon, 500 NW Wall St. 541-610-2819 or email@example.com. All ages, $10 Advance. $12 Door. www.bendtabletennis.com.