Mon, September 23, 2013

Table tennis stars London bound

By TIM BAINES, QMI Agency


Ottawa table tennis player Andre Ho (QMI Agency/DARREN BROWN)

OTTAWA - In some corners of the world, the top table tennis players are treated like rock stars.

They make big bucks. Their faces are on posters ... guys like Long Ma, Jike Zhang, Hao Wang, Timo Boll and Jun Mizutani.

Canadian Olympian Andre Ho gets $900 a month in funding. He’s not complaining ... he gets by.

But he’ll soon be standing across from some of those table tennis rock stars in London. Big money or no big money, he says he won’t be intimidated.

“Everyone over there knows them,” said Ho, 20, who moved to Ottawa from Vancouver a year and a half ago to get better training. “Basically, it’s like the NHL. And these guys are all multi-millionaires.

“North America is far different from Asia and Europe where there are a lot of good, quality players who live an environment where table tennis is professional.”

Ho and Gatineau’s Pierre-Luc Hinse will be joined at the Olympics by two other players with Ottawa connections – Wang Zhen and Mo Zhang. The Canadian table tennis players train six days a week, for 4-6 hours each day, out of a training gym on Louisa St.

“I started playing when I was seven,” said Ho. “My dad really liked to play and we had a table in the basement. In less than a year, I won four (events) at the Canadian junior championships.”

In less than three years, he was able to beat his dad, Simpson, who opened a table tennis club in Richmond, B.C., when Andre was eight. His mother, Amelia, would go on to become president of the British Columbia Table Tennis Association.

“I had a strong interest to play and when I was 12 or 13, I started putting in extra time,” said Ho. “My Olympic dream kicked in, I think, when I was 15 or 16.

Ho qualified for the Olympics after taking one of three top spots at a Canadian qualifier in February, then taking top seed at a North American qualifier.

Hinse, 25, moved to Ottawa from Montreal six years ago and now lives in Gatineau.

He learned the game in his basement, playing against family and friends. The purchase of a table-tennis racquet included a free coupon to play in a tournament. He won the under-10 division.

At age 11, he stopped playing hockey and soccer to focus on table tennis. By the time he was 14 or 15, the Olympics began to seem like a realistic goal.

“Once you see the Olympics at the end of the road, it makes it easier, it’s good motivation,” said Hinse, who was relieved to punch his ticket to London. His parents, Luc and Nicole, were at the qualifier to cheer him on, with the father so nervous that at times he had to leave the gym.

Ho knows as one of the younger competitors, he’s in for a challenge.

“As well as being good tactically, technically and physically, you’ve got to be mentally tough,” he said. “You’re going to have your ups and downs. But you can’t dwell on the bad moments.

“It’s my first Olympics so I want to do as well as I can. I look at being young as being an advantage. I have lots of energy and can move faster. It’s a fast sport — a physical way of playing chess.”

As an underdog, Ho’s not worried about what the competition will bring. Given the tournament’s single-elimination format, he knows he could do some damage.

“The ball is round. Even if I don’t compare skill-wise, I can play with these guys. I should have nothing to fear. Single elimination is good for players who are seeded lower. Sometimes you can catch an opponent when they’re not at the best and you are at yours. I hope I can make an upset or two.”

Hinse said watching Sidney Crosby and Team Canada win at the 2010 Olympics was “an amazing moment.”

He looks at the performance of Korean Ryu Seung Min, who won table tennis gold in 2004, as a motivator.

“He wasn’t supposed to even win a medal,” said Hinse. “I’m not at the same level as some of the other players, but everybody is so nervous. I know I can make an impact. I have nothing to lose.”

Hinse was partnered with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at a get-together in London last month.

“He was very low profile,” said Hinse. “He was focused on playing. We were impressed with his level of play.

“I had to make a speech in front of him,” said Ho. “The first thing I said was ‘I’m more nervous now than when I’m at the table.”

The Olympians will compete at the Canadian championships this week in Richmond, B.C., then leave for London.

tim.baines@sunmedia.ca

Twitter: @TimCBaines