For about 10 years I believed I was destined to be an Olympic table tennis player. I envisioned my gold medal showdown against a Chinese competitor and dreamed of standing on the podium while The Star-Spangled Banner played on the loudspeakers. Would I mouth the words while the cameras zoomed in? Yes. Would I cry? No. Perhaps my family would; maybe I would if my agent thought it’d help land endorsements. Janesville would throw a parade for me, or at least make me a grandmaster for the Hay Daze festivities. I’d tour as some type of ping-pong prodigy, taking on all comers in a barnstorming tour across Minnesota — no, across America.
“And now I’ll take on the Iowa state champion…with my left hand!”
This dream started when I was 8 and only ended when I was about 18. What fueled it? My savant-like skills as a young ping-pong player, when I ruled in our basement and also captured a pair of highly prestigious Waseca County titles, each time defeating adult competitors who believed their victories over Grandpa Joe in the garage meant they could beat this 9-year-old phenom. And when I dominated during our table tennis unit in our high school phy ed class — and managed to defeat our previously invincible teacher — then I knew for sure gold was in my future.
I’m sure I’m not the only kid whose dreams of Olympic glory were fueled by phy ed class. The Olympics bring us odd sports we see every four years. Phy ed classes offer us traditional athletic offerings but also those activities we only experience in our school years.
“If I can dominate my fellow seventh-graders in badminton, why can’t I do the same to Italians and Germans when I’m 20?”
I think I had Olympic abilities in numerous phy ed events, if only someone had alerted the USOC to my existence. They could have whisked me away to a mountain in Colorado where I’d fine-tune my skills under elite coaches until I was ready to unleash my abilities on both an unsuspecting world, and Al Trautwig.
Some phy ed sports, like dodge ball, aren’t in the Olympics, though I’m not really sure why. Think of the patriotic fervor that could have swept this country if the 1976 games had featured the U.S. battling the Soviets in a dodge ball final. In Janesville we called it battle ball, a more accurate description of the game’s intent. We used the obligatory red rubber balls, the spheres that likely still fill the nightmares of those poor kids who didn’t do well in gym class, the kids who hugged the back wall in hopes the missiles wouldn’t find their heads or groins. Could I have made the Olympic battle ball team? Of course. I had hands like Steve Largent and a sidearm delivery that came in low and with a spin. Depending on their respective schedules, I could have simply gone between the table tennis and dodge ball venues, a Jim Thorpe for the modern ages.
The only question? Would Sports Illustrated use a cover shot with me holding a ping-pong paddle or a red rubber ball? The four-minute NBC feature about my life and career — narrated by Jimmy Roberts, with music by a bunch of stringed instruments — would focus on the concussion I suffered playing battle ball in fifth-grade, when my head slammed onto the floor after I dropped to my knees while catching a spinning throw from a teacher. Fifth-grade was a bad year for our class in battle ball. Another kid had his wrist shattered by a throw. The guy who threw it? Olympic material.
Any other school play wallball? It was sort of like team handball but involved touching the walls on each end of the basketball court. That’s about all I remember. It it was an Olympic sport, you’d see it re-broadcast at 2 a.m. on one of the NBC cable channels, played in front of 27 people, 20 of whom are hungover or lost on their way to the Equestrian facilities, the game announced by broadcasters you won’t hear again until the fall when you catch them calling a Utah State football game at midnight on ESPNU. It would struggle to find a niche in the Olympics and it struggled to find fans in our phy ed class.
The shuttle run tormented me and I’m grateful it never become a part of the Olympic rotation. It served its role as part of the Presidential Fitness routine and helped identify this nation’s finest scholastic athletes, but let’s not bring it onto the world stage.
With the Olympics eliminating baseball and softball, I guess it’s not surprising Wiffle Ball isn’t a recognized sport. Our gym proved to be the perfect location for some classic battles, the metal bleachers serving as an inviting short porch for the rare lefty hitters who passed through the walls of Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton. Playing the field occasionally proved frustrating, especially against the faster members of our class. It was possible — depending on the fielder and the runner — to see a play start with a hit to third and end with the worst inside-the-gym homer in the history of bat-and-ball games, as the runner sprinted to second before the ball even arrived at first, then headed to third while the ball made its way to the second baseman and then jogged home just as the ball made its way to the beleaguered third basemen, who had started the whole unholy mess. Not the type of play you’d see at the London Games.
A blind South Korean archer inspired the world with a gold-medal performance at the start of the 2012 Olympics, but even today I can’t really watch any archery performances, unless it’s occurring in a Robin Hood movie or at a Renaissance Festival. Archery scarred me, and I scarred everyone who ever saw me shoot a bow and arrow. I understand archery as an Olympic sport, it’s something the ancient Greeks could step right into today and perform admirably. But I don’t understand why we had it in phy ed. We exerted no energy, burned no calories. I couldn’t string the bow, couldn’t aim and couldn’t fire, not without the arrow falling to the basketball court that also served as our shooting range. Archery…not an Olympic possibility for me.
Despite my skills with racquets and paddles, I never quite dominated badminton like I did tennis and table tennis. Our gym teacher ruled at badminton. Mr. Niemczyk enjoyed toying with any teenage challengers and dispatched them with ease. In three decades I never heard of a student beating him. And for years the same held true for ping-pong, until I came along. I managed to beat Mr. Niemczyk and this served as more proof that the Olympics were inevitable. This was like Rulon Gardner beating that Russian who hadn’t lost in a century. High school, basement, friends, family, strangers, I beat them all. Those two Waseca County titles? Scoff if you must, but understand I was in 4th and 5th grade when I captured my titles. The paper ran my picture, but in a way I feel that was inadequate. I beat grown men! A part of me wishes my folks had channeled their inner swimming parent and told the sports editor he needed to run a 500-word feature on me or he’d cost me a college scholarship — and a spot on Team USA.
So what happened? Why am I sitting here in NYC instead of serving as the veteran performer on my country’s table tennis squad in London? It’d be my fifth Olympics or so. Forget a parade — by now Janesville would have put a statue up on Main Street, me in mid-forehand.
Alas, when I went to college I discovered players of similar skill, guys who probably had similar Olympic fantasies at some point in time, though likely not as detailed. I remained one of the better players at my college and as the years went by I continued to dispatch most opponents, whether they were related to me or worked the late shift with me at the Fargo paper. But at 18 I finally did realize I probably didn’t have what it takes to make the Olympics, even though with the proper training, some nutritional advice and perhaps a bit of blood-doping, I could have made a run during the Trials.
Now, dodge ball? I’d still lead the U.S. to gold.