What appears to be a simple game of ping pong most afternoons in the Alumni Commons gym is far more than an afternoon round. It is the sound of dedication, sacrifice, and the stories of individuals who have risked everything to be able to play their sport. Knowing what table tennis means to its players unravels an entirely new layer to the team and sheds a new light on their practice in the Alumni Commons.
Widely known and ranked second in the nation, Mississippi College’s table tennis team has climbed to the top since its beginning in 2007 and took the national championship in 2019. What began as students casually playing in the Healthplex has led to national recognition. Being a widely known global sport, the entirety of MC’s team is international students. The group consists of Paola Casas from Mexico, Harry Sharma Aryl from Japan, and Vladyslav Totkalo and Volodymyr Lushnikov from Ukraine. With this variety of cultures comes many unique backgrounds and stories. Each team member gave up something to be here. Casas spoke on the decision to leave, saying, “It was so hard to say yes to coming here…I already had everything…I was comfortable.” She goes on to explain the difficulties of transitioning from Mexico to Mississippi but how it was worth it for her sport. Table tennis is everything for the players, and it means way more than just a hobby or a table game. Totkalo said, “People grow up playing ping pong, and they treat it kind of like a table game, but it is more complicated than that.”
Table tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988 and is widely known in Europe and Asia. There is an activity to the sport that far outweighs a typical ping pong match. When not playing against each other, the team is working out and conditioning. Players require lightning responses, immense agility, and professional equipment to be set up for success. As the game is continually shifting, players are often developing new techniques for spins and returns, which results in the necessity of being both physically and mentally acute. Using expensive equipment and specialized paddles, there is immense brainpower and technique that is required in the game of table tennis. Without fully understanding the sacrifice and seriousness it takes for one to compete in a game, it is difficult to see the sport’s importance.
Compared to the other sports teams on MC’s campus, table tennis is set apart. Nationally, table tennis is not covered by the NCAA, which automatically eliminates the resources that the other sports have, including jerseys and logos. Additionally, the team’s designated coach is in Michigan, which greatly affects the dynamic of practice. Casas explains this when she says, “That’s the difference between us and different sports. Other sports need to create new players and need to guide their new players. We already know how to play because we are professionals. Nobody is going to come here to teach us how to play table tennis because we are already professionals in our countries.”
These national professionals have found themselves without a stable place to practice and can be seen in the Commons in the afternoon. The routine of practice begins by setting up barriers in the back corner of the gym and pulling out the table for practice, and ends with searching for lost balls in the gym. Over the summer, the team watched their place of practice slowly become a social hall for studying and socializing. Initially, the Commons’s gym floor functioned as the intramural court and was privately available for table tennis practice. Sponsor Andy Kanengiser said, “As far as we know, we [the team] are going to stay there.” This provides an issue as this professional team has been left without an intentional place to practice. Paola describes her team practice before this semester as “free.” She follows this up by saying, “That is why we are very concerned about starting to practice in Alumni.” While the function is the same, practicing in the Alumni Commons has resulted in restrictions for the team and has prevented them from reaching their potential for the future. While they are not covered by the NCAA, the table tennis team still requires the tools necessary to prepare for nationals in the spring and represent MC well.
Professionals or not, the table tennis team needs a consistent place to practice, school jerseys, and the reassurance that MC will support them as they go for the national championship again this year.