Homer Alaska - Sports

Story last updated at 2:10 PM on Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ping pong paves way to adventures for Homer youth

By Angelina Skowronski
For the Homer News


Jimmy Gao, 11, practices his topspin stroke at community rec table tennis offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays 6-8pm at the Homer High School commons.

Eleven-year-old Jimmy Gao never thought his passion would turn toward table tennis. Learning how to play the indoor sport four years ago with his father, Jimmy tried out for the Alaska team for the Arctic Winter Games and came out the No.1 seed for the team.

"I was really excited to got to the Arctic Winter Games. I've played in tournaments in the Lower 48 before, but representing Alaska in the AWG was different," said Jimmy.

Jimmy and seven other table tennis players of Team Alaska played against seven other teams from across Canada, Team Greenland, Team Yamal (Russia), and Team Sápmi (Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia). Jimmy and doubles partner Eli Neslund of Anchorage took the bronze medal in the junior doubles event, contributing to Team Alaska's third place overall in table tennis in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.

Speaking like a wise ping pong master, Jimmy said, "I really enjoy table tennis as a sport. My father and I treat it seriously, but not so serious that it becomes our main goal in life."

His unserious life includes reading, particularly history books; history is his favorite subject in school.

Jimmy's father and coach, Gary Gao, was never a table tennis player himself until he took it up four years ago with his son as a means of physical education curriculum.

"We home school Jimmy so I had to be creative with the syllabus, especially in the winter when it is difficult to get outside often enough. I thought table tennis would offer the things we needed," said Gao. "I've played other sports and have bruises all over me. You don't get many bruises playing ping pong."

Gao says that the sport enhances his son's hand-eye coordination and footwork. Since starting ping pong, Jimmy has picked up fencing and has excelled quickly. His father attributes Jimmy's success in fencing to his footwork in ping pong.

"Ping pong is a sport that doesn't get much attention, but anyone can play. All you really need is a paddle and ball, and you don't need to be good the first time you play," said Gao.

In efforts to popularize the sport, Gao has acted as the volunteer coach for the community rec table tennis program, organized by community rec coordinator Mike Illg.

"Gary approached me about a year ago with interest in developing a table tennis club. We have offered ping pong over the years with varying success. It is nice to have someone as dedicated to it as Gary to help get it off the ground," said Illg.

The Community Rec department rolls out three ping pong tables each Tuesday and Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. in the HHS commons. The event is open to all ages and all levels. The fee of $1 per player helps cover the cost of the equipment.

Gao has donated a few items to the table tennis club including Robo-Pong, an automated ping pong ball machine. Gao hopes that the more sophisticated equipment will generate new players and new prospects to take to the next Arctic Winter Games.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday you can find Jimmy and Gao practicing their topspins and backhands at the HHS commons. Training is underway for the 2013 AWG.

Aside from two AWG medals in the shape of ulu knives, Jimmy brought home a few pins representing each team. The Alaska pin, in the shape of a totem pole, was one of many styles of pins traded by other athetes on the, as Jimmy puts it, "black market."

"I had a lot of fun and made some friends I hope to see again next year at the games," said Jimmy. "And I still have more pins to collect."