Net Gain

Nonplayers make make sport of table tennis and badminton, but metro Detroiters who participate in these games know that they require sharp athletic skills


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In this, the month of the 2008 games in Beijing, world-class Olympians inspire us to become something more than armchair athletes.

Fantasies of becoming ace divers or gymnasts are mostly just that. Unless you start building super-human abilities at age 7, forget it. But there are some summer Olympic sports that seem within reach of regular folks. Table tennis (just don’t call it Ping-Pong) and badminton are two.

Both may sound about as Olympic as croquet. But stifle the laughter. Enthusiasts say table tennis is the second-most popular sport in the world, after soccer. And badminton, well, here’s what Paul Schiebold, the president of the Birmingham (Mich.) Badminton Club likes to say: “Tennis is for people who aren’t athletic enough to play badminton. The shuttle can be hit at over 200 mph. It’s the fastest racquet sport in the world.”

In metro Detroit, both sports claim an active subculture of devotees. And those enthusiasts will most likely be frustrated during the Beijing games, because neither gets much, if any, network airtime.

Some pretty high-level table tennis and badminton volleys heat up area gyms here in metro Detroit, however. And novices are welcome.

Schiebold, who is 53, began playing badminton six years ago. “I was looking for something to do with my son,” Schiebold says. “He had no interest whatsoever, but I got hooked.”

The Birmingham Badminton Club has members who range in age from 15 to 75. They include a former U.S. National Team member and a diverse showing of nationalities — English, German, Chinese, Japanese, Laotian, and Russian — Schiebold says.

For all comers, he says, “It requires a great deal of athleticism. What you play in the backyard has nothing to do with competitive badminton. As a veteran told him when he first showed up to play, it takes a year to learn how to hit the bird, a year to learn where to be on the court, and another year to put the two together.

It’s certainly not your summer-lawn experience. True badminton is an indoor sport that takes speed, strength, and stamina, Schiebold says. “With a shuttlecock of feathers that weighs only 1.5 ounces, the wind affects it too much; it can take a beautiful shot and ruin it.”

Jon Bosika is equally passionate about table tennis. An immigrant from Bulgaria, Bosika was the U.S. Women’s Olympic table tennis coach in 1996 in Atlanta. He continues his work at the Davison Sports Club, near Flint.

“It takes mental and physical concentration and focus. It’s very hard work,” Bosika says.

Among his students is Ann Arbor pre-teen Danielle Mitroi, ranked second in the country among girls her age (11 years old this month). Danielle got involved when she saw her father, Stefan, a former professional soccer player in Romania, playing and asked, “Can I try?”

She liked it. Now, she rides 90 minutes one way to see Bosika for coaching every week.

Her father began playing table tennis as an adult after a soccer injury because, Mitroi says, “I needed something to do.” The rest of us may be feeling the same way after cheering on our physically fit national athletes. For information on finding “something to do” at area table tennis and badminton clubs, visit usatt.org or usabadminton.org.

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