It’s more than just a game of “ping-pong” for Lance Wei.
Standing not much more than 4 feet tall, the 9-year-old table tennis phenom displayed an abundance of emotion Saturday during a contested battle. He would be visibly frustrated if the small, white ball zipped past him, often having to peel himself from the floor, because he dove to make the play.
“It was really hard [playing] against him,” Lance said of his friend and opponent for the round, 10-year-old Kurtus Hsu.
Lance, who struggled but eventually won this round of table tennis, was one of more than 60 participants in the annual Maryland State Table Tennis Championship. The two-day tournament pits the best of the state’s players of all ages together in fierce competition, with prizes totaling up to $5,000 at stake.
The tournament has become a fixture for the Maryland Table Tennis Center, a storied club for the sport in Gaithersburg, Md.
In the large, open room that was filled with a soft pinging of balls, multiple matches took place at about 20 tables. Players were intently focused on their volleys.
The center is heralded by tournament director and coach Larry Hodges as the first of its kind in the United States.
Hodges and a small group of other table tennis coaches opened the Maryland Table Tennis Center in 1992, in an era when other full-time clubs devoted to the sport had failed.
“Everyone thought we were crazy because there weren’t full-time centers,” Hodges said.
But he developed a financial model that worked: The center and its full-time coaches split the instructional fees paid by students but coaches got a larger chunk than was typically paid, earning upwards of $60 an hour. As a result, the coaches worked longer hours and were able to recruit more students, and the center took off.
That model was copied by other operators, Hodges said. While Maryland had the only full-time center in the country in 1992, there are now 88 nationwide, sprouting up in places like the San Francisco Bay area and in the northeastern United States.
Today, the Maryland Table Tennis Center acts as a hub where aspiring players of all ages can receive coaching in the sport. The club has expanded to eight full-time coaches who, in their heyday, were some of the most elite players in the world.
The center prides itself on transforming even the youngest learners barely able to bounce the ping-pong ball on a paddle into highly ranked players.
Steve Hsu, Kurtus Hsu’s father, started bringing his two sons to the center a few years ago, and said the results of years of practice have been remarkable.
At first, he just wanted his sons to successfully get the ball over the net.
“That was kind of the goal,” Hsu said. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Kurtus, who lost to Lance in the semifinal round of the tournament, now does a lot more than hit the ball over the net. With charisma, he rattles off the names of his favorite table tennis moves — “looping,” “chopping” — and his favorite: “smash,” where the player powerfully spikes the ball across the table.
In addition to helping improve their skills, many say the center teaches life lessons to the youngest participants. Wen Hsu brought her sons, who are now in their 20s, to the center when they were children, and said her boys learnedintegrity and problem-solving through the sport.
“This is not just about table tennis,” she said. “This is about life in general.”
She runs a nonprofit organization called the HW Global Foundation that helps provide scholarships to kids who want to learn table tennis.
As Lance, a student in the foundation’s talent development program, moved through the tournament, Wen Hsu pulled him aside to encourage him.
Lance struggled, fell behind in the tournament, but eventually broke through and won the finals in his class.
It was a big deal.
“I won the finals,” he crowed to anyone who would listen. “I won the finals.”