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A Life's Work: Just Follow the Bouncing Ball

By Elaine Sung-Salomon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 26 1996; Page C08
The Washington Post

At 16 months, Todd Sweeris was taking a drumstick from his Sunday afternoon chicken dinner and swatting at peas he tossed in the air.

At 2, he was standing on the rust-colored, no-wax linoleum floor of his kitchen, hitting a Ping-Pong ball against the refrigerator door.

At 22, he is headed for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

They say the great ones start young, and it would be hard to top Rockville's Sweeris, one of three members of the U.S. Olympic men's table tennis team. His dreams of reaching the Games were conceived long ago.

"Every project in school, whenever they'd let me, I'd do it on the Olympics," he said. "It's hard to imagine what it will be like. One of our coaches, he's been telling me stories about how you're on a three-week high. You need two weeks just to get your head back together."

At the National Table Tennis Center, a spartan warehouse tucked away in a corner of Rockville, Sweeris sweats out long hours with his playing partner, Sean Lonergan, the 1995 under-22 national champion. They prefer to practice their drills in solitude, surrounded only by six other tables, rows of metal folding chairs and practice Ping-Pong balls the color of Tang scattered across the floor.

This is not the sedentary game you goofed around with in the basement of your best friend's house. Everything is focused on a tiny white ball flying back and forth in a near blur. A well-placed shot will send an opponent sprawling.

The sport requires specific conditioning. Sweeris practices twice a day, six days a week; he also lifts weights three or four times a week for strength, runs two to three miles several times a week for endurance and jumps rope to develop the muscles in his ankles and lower portion of his shins.

Work ethic has never been a problem for Sweeris, ranked third in the United States. But there have been other quandaries, sometimes exacerbated by his competitive nature.

One such situation has to do with his family. His parents, Connie and Dell Sweeris, are in the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame; they have 25 national titles between them, including four national doubles titles.

They never pushed him to go into the sport, though they couldn't help but notice his hand-eye coordination and his drive to win when he was a toddler, both extraordinary for someone his age. In fact, they encouraged his other endeavors, such as tennis (he won a medal at age 7) and Little League. But always, he returned to table tennis.

"I'd get tired of him always wanting me to go downstairs and hit with him, and he was only 2, he was too short to reach the table anyway," Connie Sweeris said. "So I showed him how to hit against the refrigerator door. Once a year, I'd pull the refrigerator out to clean behind it, and there'd be all sorts of balls back there."

When he was 13, he accepted an invitation to join the resident program at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. Midway through his sophomore year, he left the center and returned to Michigan, where he attended a public high school for six months, then went back to Colorado Springs.

"He had to find his own place. I think he almost pressured himself too much," Connie Sweeris said. "Todd is very competitive-natured. Mentally, he needed to learn how to take the pressure off himself. I think every athlete goes through that."

Even his choice of college revolved around table tennis: the University of Maryland -- where he is a junior accounting major -- won out because of its proximity to the National Table Tennis Center. But the struggles continued, and he was mired in what he considers a slump, from mid-1993 to mid-1995, when his national ranking hovered between fifth and eighth.

In June 1995, he decided to alter his technique, something almost unheard of for a player at his level. He changed the paddle surface used for his backhand; instead of smooth rubber, he went with a raised rubber cover, one with hundreds of nubs, or "pips."

He and his coach, Cheng Yinghua, worried that he might not adjust in time for the Olympic trials, which were in February. But in July, he won at the Olympic Festival, and he was more than ready for the trials, earning a berth along with David Yong-Xiang Zhuang of North Brunswick, N.J., and Jim Butler of Augusta, Ga.

Sweeris, competing in the shadow of his parents for so long, finally felt he had established his identity in the sport last year, after he won the gold medal at the U.S. Olympic Festival. His uncle, who used to coach Sweeris's mother, came up to him and said: "Don't ever worry about what people say about your parents. You're definitely better than they ever were."

Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
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