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From near-extinction to the national championships: How U.Va. Club Table Tennis rebuilt their team

Under the leadership of fourth-year Engineering student David Xiao and his executive board, the club bounced back after nearly disappearing

<p>To organize the masses, Xiao and his executive board decided to split the students into two groups, a recreational team and a competitive team.&nbsp;</p>

To organize the masses, Xiao and his executive board decided to split the students into two groups, a recreational team and a competitive team. 

Two years ago, the University’s club table tennis team had just two active members and the team’s CIO status was frozen. Flash forward to today and the club team now has 100 active members and third-year Engineering student Shirley Zhang qualified this year for the national championships in women’s singles. 

During the summer of 2019, David Xiao, fourth-year Engineering student and club president, met with the club team’s four other members — third-year Engineering student Shirley Zhang, second-year College student Jordan Denish, second-year Engineering student Peter Chen and fourth-year College student Daniel Gong — and formulated a plan to address the team’s low member commitment and frozen CIO status. 

With help from Jasmine James and Kelly Chambers, program coordinators for student engagement at the University, the group showed up to the Activities Fair in fall 2019 prepared with a vision of how they wanted to shape the club and a plan for the first few weeks of practices. They were swarmed by 400 interested students. 

To organize the masses, Xiao and his executive board decided to split the students into two groups — a recreational team and a competitive team. Within the competitive team, they were able to create a co-ed team and a women’s team. 

Despite Xiao’s success in reviving the club, the president has surprisingly only played table tennis for a few years. 

“I honestly didn’t really play a lot before college,” Xiao said. “We kind of just had a table and we’d mess around with it when I was really little.”

He played other sports before coming to the University, where he joined the fencing team and eventually picked up table tennis. Though Xiao said that it is pretty typical for members to not have any experience coming into the team, Jordan Denish — second-year College student, club treasurer and social chair — said that he transitioned to the sport from tennis. 

“One of the main things I was excited about with going to college was being able to join a ping pong team,” Denish said. “I was really looking for it when I got here, and I’m really happy that we have a team.”

According to Xiao, a typical practice includes match play and drills, and competitive team members often do video analysis on their own in preparation for tournaments, such as the annual competition James Madison holds. While Denish said that James Madison usually has a large team, he cited Liberty and Virginia Tech as two consistently strong competitors as well.

In a clear highlight this season, Zhang, who is the club’s vice president, qualified for the iSET national championships, a tournament held annually by the National Table Tennis Association, in the women’s singles event. Though it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the accomplishment certainly marked a milestone for the team. Zhang, who has experience playing table tennis dating back to her middle school years, was modest about the achievement. 

“Honestly, I really just lucked out,” Zhang said. “I got help from everyone.”

In another exciting match this season, Xiao and fourth-year College student Daniel Gong — the team’s longest participating member — came back from several match points to overcome Maryland. 

“That was one of the most fun matches to watch out of the whole year,” Denish said. “They were able to pull through and win, and it was just really cool to watch.”

The team’s success in competitive play is a testament to the organization’s progress in recent years.

Earlier this year, the team also had  former professional table tennis player Ayush Tayal train with them while he studied in the McIntire School of Commerce, which Denish said was a particularly valuable experience.  

After spring break, the team was planning to help with the U.Va. Olympics — a competition between classes that was set to take place this spring — and scrimmage the Charlottesville Table Tennis Club. Though his time was cut short, Xiao said he has high hopes for the team’s future.

Xiao said that after he leaves, he hopes to see participation increase from the recreational team, which he anticipates potentially forming an executive board for in the future. He noted that he thinks it is important that the team maintains a competitive level despite the loss of graduating fourth years and wants the team to go to nationals again. 

Most importantly, Xiao said that a personal goal of his was to make sure that the momentum he helped create lasts beyond his graduation. 

“I’m really proud of everybody for stepping up even though it was really stressful and really tense at the beginning of the year with the huge influx of people,” Xiao said. “Because they’ve had this experience and because they were able to push through that and bond together as a team, I really feel like the table tennis club is in good hands.”

Xiao also noted a few of his proudest accomplishments from this year including an increase in participation so large that they were able to form a women’s team. Moreover, Xiao said that, despite the team’s drive to win, he was happy that they were able to maintain a welcoming environment. 

“We try to be competitive, but we try to value the people before the wins and the losses,” Xiao said. “I think that’s important and I think that some club sports may not do that as much.”

The best is yet to come, however. Denish noted that he was looking forward to seeing the new members join the team’s executive board later this year. Despite the semester’s abrupt ending, the University’s club table tennis team certainly has a bright future ahead of them, especially with such a strong foundation to build on and incredibly dedicated leadership.