MINNEAPOLIS, JULY 15 -- Sean O'Neill is a household name in his household, which is in McLean, and in places where serious table tennis is played. That's about all.
If he played a better known sport, he too would be better known. For he is the best men's table tennis player this nation has, and he proved it again today by winning the U.S. Olympic Festival men's singles gold medal, his third gold at this festival, which ended tonight.
With the victory, his sixth consecutive festival singles gold medal, O'Neill tied the all-time festival record of 16 gold medals, set by roller skater Dante Muse of Des Moines last week. Muse broke O'Neill's record of 13, which O'Neill set last year. So O'Neill simply came back to tie matters.
"I wasn't going to let him leave with the record to himself," O'Neill said after winning the singles title in five tense games. "He's a good friend of mine, and when we train together in Colorado Springs, this kind of allows me to eat dinner at the same table."
O'Neill, a 1988 Olympian, almost didn't win the gold medal this afternoon. He met his match in 19-year-old Jim Butler of Iowa City, a gangly player who played a cautious, strategic game to O'Neill's sheer power. O'Neill, who already had played five matches today, split the first four games with Butler, winning the first, 21-18, losing the second, 21-12, winning the third, 21-14, and losing the fourth, 22-20.
In the last game, O'Neill moved to a 5-2 lead with a masterful display of keeping the ball in play with lobs hit a good 10 to 15 feet behind the table, then, within minutes, jumped ahead, 16-9, winning four of five points on his serve. But Butler inched his way back, and won four consecutive points on his serve to pull to 20-19 with one more serve to go.
Even O'Neill said he thought Butler would tie the score. But O'Neill's powerful game didn't fail him. He rocketed the return of Butler's serve but hit it too long, past the edge of the table where it hit Butler's paddle. However, there is a rule in table tennis called "the volley rule," which says that if the ball hits a player's paddle on the fly, the person who hit the shot wins the point.
So O'Neill won the point, the match and the gold medal.
"That's not the way I want to win," O'Neill said. "But that rule has been in effect 15, 20 years, and I seem to win a lot of points that way because I hit the ball so hard."
O'Neill called it "the weirdest way" to win a match.
"It would be like match point at the French Open and Ivan Lendl not only double-faults, but puts his second serve high into the stands," he said.
O'Neill faced two brothers today: 22-year-old Scott Butler in the semifinals and Jim Butler in the finals. O'Neill, 22, faced Jim Butler once before in this festival, and lost to him in a three-game series in the team competition. It was the one event in which O'Neill did not win a gold medal: He won in doubles, mixed doubles and singles.
Today they were playing best three of five for the gold medal, giving O'Neill more room to maneuver to put away Jim Butler.
The gold medal O'Neill won gives him 20 total medals in seven festivals, dating from 1981. Only former gymnast Scott Johnson won more total festival medals, 22. And O'Neill certainly would be expected back next year when the festival moves to Los Angeles.
A 1985 graduate of Marshall High in Falls Church and a sophomore at George Mason University in the business school, O'Neill entered his first table tennis competition in 1976 at a coaching camp. His father was a nationally ranked table tennis player, which is how O'Neill was introduced to the sport.
Within a year, by the age of 10, O'Neill knew this was his sport too.
"In my third tournament, I was second in the nationals, and I was nine years old," he said. "Because so few people play this sport in the United States, compared to tennis, the opportunities for success and travel at an early age are great."
Table tennis is considered the world's second-largest participation sport, behind soccer.
"I'm more recognized in Sweden than I am here," O'Neill said. "The game is so widely accepted outside this country, but I hope to stick around another five, 10 years, and perhaps we'll have more recognition then."
Wendy Lian Williams, the bronze medalist at the 1988 Olympics, dominated the competition today in winning the 10-meter platform championship. Williams, 23, from Bridgeton, Mo., piled up 443.16 points to beat Mary Ellen Clark of Newton Square, Pa., by nearly 50 points.
In other action, Olympian Brandy Johnson picked up her third gold medal by winning the vault in record-setting fashion, scoring a 9.90 that beat the mark of 9.462 set in 1989 by Amy Scherr. Also, Hollis Conway won the high jump by clearing 7 feet 8 inches, but failed in three tries to break his U.S. record of 7-10. . . .
The Festival broke records for ticket sales and ticket revenue. Next year's Festival will be held in Los Angeles.