Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2008

Table tennis: Locals Lonergan and Xiao qualify for World Championships

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Though table tennis is only a blip on the sports radar in this country, Maryland has been a hotbed for the sport since the early 1990s. Germantown native Han Xiao, 21, and Derwood resident Sean Lonergan, 32, will help represent this country’s table-tennis contingent at the World Championships in Guangzhou, China, Feb. 24-March 2.

With their performances at the 2008 U.S. Olympic⁄National Team Trials and Qualifying tournament in Philadelphia this past weekend — Xiao finished second in the 31-man field and Lonergan took fifth — the two were selected to the five-man USA National Team.

This marks Xiao’s fifth straight appearance with the national team and Lonergan’s first-ever. The World Championships are played every year but rotate between individual and team championships each year. Xiao and Lonergan hope to help the U.S. team improve on its 2006 team showing, where it barely finished inside the top 40.

‘‘It’s special to be able to represent my country,” said Xiao, a senior at the University of Maryland and the top-ranked men’s college table tennis player. ‘‘Usually when you play a tournament, there aren’t that many people there to watch and you’re only playing for yourself. With the team championships, there’s a lot more intensity, a lot more energy. Pride is on the line.”

Xiao’s second-place finish in Philadelphia earned him a spot at the North American Olympic Trials in Vancouver, Canada, April 4-6. North America is limited to three men and three women at the Olympics for table tennis. The top four U.S. men and women and the top four Canadian men and women will compete for those six spots.

It may not look like it to the average viewer, but table tennis is a physically demanding sport at the elite level. Xiao spends four days a week in the gym running and lifting to stay in shape.

Though it doesn’t seem there’s much space to cover, the ball travels at a very high speed and the top players swing extremely hard. Positioning, and thus conditioning, are crucial. Athletes are constantly moving to set themselves up.

And, the part Xiao, who picked up his first racket at age 5, finds most intriguing, is the sport’s unique mental complexity. Because the table is so small, decisions — what spin to use, how much power, what angle, where to position yourself — must be made in a split-second’s time.

The biggest challenge for Xiao at this point is balancing his academics and his table tennis training regimen— he’s double-majoring in computer science and business. But being a well-balanced person has also helped Xiao maintain a realistic perspective on his table tennis career.

Xiao trains in the gym during the week and spends about four hours a day table training over the weekends. He’ll increase that table workout when school’s not in session and as Olympic Trials near.

‘‘I think I have a legitimate shot at making the Olympics,” Xiao said. ‘‘No matter what sport you compete in, going to the Olympics is really special. It’s universally recognized. It never goes away. It’s one of the only titles that stays with you. You’re not a former Olympian, you’re always an Olympian. That’s something you carry with you your whole life.”

When Lonergan, a former U.S. National Collegiate men’s singles and doubles team champion, failed to make the Olympics in 1996 and 2000, he’d figured he’d peaked. He’d been struggling with a back injury and there aren’t really any opportunities for a professional career in table tennis in this country.

So he walked away. He picked up a racket for the first time since 2003 this past summer. With this being an Olympic year, Lonergan figured he’d give it another shot. The time off served him well. He’s got a newfound love of the sport. His back feels better. And he’s qualified for the U.S. National team.

‘‘You take a two-week break [from table tennis] and it’s no big deal,” Lonergan said. ‘‘But after such a long time away, I was starting to miss it. I missed the competition. It’s pretty gratifying, coming back and doing this well. It’s interesting; I worked hard for so long and never made it. I feel fresher. And I have more realistic expectations. I know I’m not going to be No. 1. But I can still do pretty well.”