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Paddling for table tennis

Former Olympian here promoting little-known sport

Sean O'Neill would be a famous athlete if more Americans took his sport seriously.

The 30-year-old Virginia man knows table tennis the way Michael Jordan knows hoops. O'Neill can stand 30 feet away from the table and casually return all the slams you can hit. And he can put enough spin on the ball to make it loop around the end of the net instead of over the top.

But table tennis is still just pingpong to most Americans. And even though O'Neill twice played for the United States Olympic team and won five national titles, he's unknown to most Americans beyond a small circle of tournament players.

O'Neill and the people he works with in Ashland hope to expand Americans' appreciation for the game, and to make some money while they do it. He's visiting the Rogue Valley this week to talk business strategy with corporate officers of Airedale Sports and Technology Inc. (ASTI), which makes table tennis products.

As the company's national marketing director and spokesman, O'Neill travels the country demonstrating equipment, conducting clinics and testing new products. He will demonstrate his skills Friday evening in an exhibition at Valley Floor Sports Center in Medford.

O'Neill's sport bears little resemblance to the familiar pastime played in countless basements and rec rooms across America. Tournament-level players hit the ball 70 mph and use rackets (paddles, to the rest of us) that can spin the ball up to 5,000 revolutions per minute.

O'Neill plays with an ASTI racket covered with a special sticky rubber that allows him to put all that spin on the ball. Such rackets may sell for as much as $80, compared with the standard $5 pingpong paddle with its pebbled-grained surface.

ASTI president Waqidi Falicoff said the company hopes to encourage more interest in the game at a competitive, rather than recreational, level and create more demand for its sophisticated rackets and other equipment.

The professional game's sticky rackets and fast pace make top players think about strategy, rather than simply trade volleys, said O'Neill. Some have called (table tennis) athletic chess. You always need to be one shot ahead.

Everywhere around the world but here in the United States people understand the intricacy of the sport, he said. Only in the United States is it a `game.'

Former Olympian Sean O'Neill makes his living promoting table tennis. - Photo by Jim Craven