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Table tennis a super food for the mind, body and spirit

Updated: 
November 9, 2017 - 12:05am

It’s one of those sports where you don’t have to see it – just listen – to know that it’s going on.

The ball is hit back and forth with those two trademark sounds, and silence means the point is won.

Ping … pong.

On one hand, it’s simple to get started … on the other it’s harder than it looks.

It’s easy on the body …. but it’s challenging for the mind – and that’s a good thing.

It’s low impact … but stressful enough to get a good workout.

It’s table tennis, and to Len Winkler, the sport’s unofficial ambassador in Hawaii, it’s a virtual super food for the mind, body, and spirit.

Most people have probably played in the backyard at least once, but Winkler sees a different game.

“It’s great for hand-eye coordination and it’s great for your health,” Winkler said Sunday as a USA Table Tennis-sanctioned tournament wound down at the Boys &Girls Club of the Big Island. “The benefits are amazing.”

For one, brain power.

“There has been extensive medical research finding that it’s the only sport or activity to utilize all the different portions of the brain at the same time,” he said.

For another, it helps you stay sharper.

“Scientific evidence shows that it can prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s,” Winkler said.

“Seniors should be playing it.”

Kids, too.

Table tennis – Ping-Pong is the trademarked name – requires a table, a net, two paddles, a ball and two willing participants. The small ball and short table make the sport conducive to young people, Winkler said.

“It’s designed for shorter people,” he said. “People over 6-feet tall have a much more difficult time playing. Kids can play with adults from an age of 7 or older, they’re just as competitive.

“I want to default if I have to play a kid.”

Winkler described the sport as “womb to tomb.”

Lory Hunter, president of Hilo’s Big Island Table Tennis Association, is especially focused on the former age group. On Tuesdays, the club’s members instruct youngsters at the Boys &Girls Club, and BITTA – which sponsored the Hawaii Island Open last weekend, which also doubled as the Aloha State Championship – also meets on Saturdays and Sundays.

“We give them advice if they want it, and leave them alone if they don’t,” she said. “They can come in and just hit it with each other, or they can learn how to get better.”

Hunter’s first love is running, but she got into table tennis through her husband, Stewart.

“Most people don’t know how much of a workout it is,” Lory Hunter said. “Stewart goes through three shirts in two hours. You have to be light on your feet.”

Athleticism helps, of course, but it’s not a prerequisite. The better the technique, the better the player.

“We have a 90-year-old that plays,” Hunter said. “She just stands there and can run people off the table.”

Winkler, who runs North Hawaii Kohala Table Tennis in Kapaau, is currently the only certified, referee, umpire and coach in the state. He’s been putting on sanctioned tournaments on the Big Island since 2008.

“Players might think it’s easy, it’s not, but it’s easier on your body,” he said. “It’s a safe sport.”

The tournament at the Boys &Girls Club was a safe space for those players looking for good, clean fun, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t strong competition and highly rated competitors.

Carlos Ko of Oahu left with his second consecutive state championship, sweeping Weili Zhu 4-0 in a competitive match that Hunter said might have been the “best match we’ve had here.”

In some ways, Ko’s ascent illustrates the every man – or every woman – quality of the sport. Born in South Korea, Ko’s family moved to Paraguay when he was a child, and he found he wasn’t physical enough to play soccer, the national sport of South America.

“I was left out, but I fell in love (with table tennis) on the first day,” he said. “(Soon) I realized I was beating everybody.”

The 47-year-old Ko took third in the over-30 division at the 2016 U.S. Open in Las Vegas, and in 2010 he won the classic title at nationals.

“No one here knows how good Carlos is,” Winkler said of the 32 participants in the Hawaii Island Open. “They think they know, but the majority of players here have never played anywhere else.”

If traditional tennis is a marathon, Ko called table tennis a sprint.

“This game is complicated, you have to deal with spin and a lot of placement,” he said.

In December at the U.S. Open in Vegas, Ko hopes to claim crowns in the 30s and 40s divisions to bring titles back to Hawaii, where he’s lived for two years and works as a Realtor.

“Every year that I come here, it’s getting better and better,” he said. “I can’t expect anything more.”

Hunter and Winkler, of course, wouldn’t mind more members for their clubs.

In addition to Kohala and Hilo, Winkler said there are table tennis clubs in Waimea, Kona and Captain Cook.

For more information, visit Winkler’s website, http://www.tabletennisandmore.com.

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