When their twice-monthly, six-hour commute from Greenwich, Conn. to Gaithersburg, Md., became too much of a grind, Nathan Hsu’s family faced a life-altering decision: Pick up and move to be near Nathan’s coach, or give up on his chance to make it to the Olympics.
Nathan had begun his career at age 9 in a Connecticut after-school program. He was a quick learner and had become quite good, showing enough promise to compete in local tournaments before moving onto the national scene.
But, still, this was table tennis. Did people take this seriously?
As the Olympics just proved, many people do, including the Hsus. They moved to Rockville to be near the Maryland Table Tennis Center, the first and perhaps best-known training center of its kind in the eastern United States.
During the school year, Nathan now spends two to three hours a day, six days a week, training in the warehouse-sized facility, which was recently expanded and refurbished when his parents spent $100,000 to buy into the operation. Nathan’s father, Hans, an investment banker, is now doing the commuting to his job in New York.
“Nathan played all sports and he loved them all,” his mother, Wen Hsu, said. “But, then we realized that there was a formal training for this and people actually take it seriously.”
In his six years at the center, Nathan has grown into one of the nation’s top teenage players. On Aug. 1,he won a bronze medal in the Under-18 division at the AAU Junior Olympics in Houston, where his brother, John, won a silver in the Under-22 division. Last summer, Nathan was the nation’s top Under-16 player.
To step inside the Maryland Table Tennis Center is to banish the image of kids casually swatting a Ping-Pong ball in a suburban basement or a YMCA. At the center’s summer camp, 60 children, including Hsu, train for as long as seven hours a day.
The converted flooring warehouse sits high above bustling Frederick Avenue. Its 16 tables are in use simultaneously, so many balls scattered about the premises that they are scooped up with pool skimmers. About 90 percent of the campers are of Asian descent.
But this is still a summer camp. A list of rules hangs on a pole in the middle of the playing area, instructing players not to use foul language and to keep their hands to themselves. In the front of the center is a row of lunch tables adjacent to a set of storage cubbies. Air-conditioned and comfortable, the center features a red-padded floor imported from China as part of the recent expansion.
Along with mastering his on-court game, Hsu works once a week with a physical trainer. He lifts weights, but the majority of his attention is focused on his long legs.
To be an elite player, he must be quick enough to move across the table and away from it to track down opponents’ shots. His legs also must be strong enough to power his strokes, especially his forehand serve.
During the school year, Hsu follows his daily training with homework. He is enrolled in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High, a school he chose because of that program. He usually gets home about 7 p.m. and goes to bed at midnight.
The Maryland Table Tennis Center was founded in 1982 by Larry Hodges, a USA Table Tennis coach and member of the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame. It was the first facility in the nation to provide year-round table tennis training.
Hodges campaigned for the U.S. Table Tennis Association to copy his blueprint, which he believed was the way to expand the sport. Since then, 11 other centers have formed across the country, with Maryland and the San Francisco Bay area serving as the hot beds.
Wen Hsu has a similar goal: to expand the sport and bring in more non-Asian Americans. That was one of the motives behind the couple’s $100,000 investment.
“It’s not just for training athletes, but my goal is to expose this to the general public,” she said. “If we want to have an Olympian one day for this sport, we have to have more people playing this sport.”
Nathan said that “at my school I started a table tennis club and there are a lot of people who aren’t Asian that come. People take the sport a lot less serious here, but it’s still popular.”
Table tennis is one of the few Olympic sports in which the United States has never medaled. Derek Nie, an 11-year-old national champion, shrugged his shoulders at the thought of breaking that drought.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t really thought about it that much.”
The center features high-profile Chinese American coaches Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang. Both played for the Chinese national team and spent time atop the United States’ singles rankings. Cheng was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team.
The six-days-per-week training regimen starts when competitors are very young. Nie, a sixth-grader at Silver Spring’s Takoma Park Middle School, takes off only on Thursdays. His work is not limited to physical training; it includes strategy session and watching tape of opponents.
During July’s U.S. Open, an opponent Nie had prepared for was upset in the semifinal. But his mother had taped the match, which Hodges and Nie quickly watched before Nie won the title.
Nie is exceptional at strategy, Hodges said. He knows his opponent’s weaknesses before the game starts and is always looking to dominate using his strong, looping shot. He thinks for himself, a clear advantage when playing against others in his age group.
“The way you coach him is you ask him what’s on his mind, what are you thinking to do,” Hodges said. “And then you expand on that. Because he really spends a lot of time thinking about the game.”
Nie and Hsu both have Olympic aspirations and their coaches believe they could be ready for 2016. But Hsu plans to attend college first.
“While I’m at college, I’m definitely going to train as much as I can,” Hsu said. “And I’m going to try to make the Olympics. I’m aiming for 2016 but probably have better chances at 2020 after college.”