A Ping-Pong Comeback

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Liang Geliang warms up i

Liang Geliang, 56, a former table tennis world champion from China, warms up at the Potomac Table Tennis Club, in Potomac, Md. The Peking University coach is competing in the North American Table Tennis Championships in Baltimore. Andrea Hsu, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Andrea Hsu, NPR
Liang Geliang warms up

Liang Geliang, 56, a former table tennis world champion from China, warms up at the Potomac Table Tennis Club, in Potomac, Md. The Peking University coach is competing in the North American Table Tennis Championships in Baltimore.

Andrea Hsu, NPR

The North American Table Tennis Championships are this weekend in Baltimore. More than 200 teams competing, including nine from China. Andrea Hsu caught up with one of the Chinese teams, and a star player from the 1970s, who's come back to compete.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Table tennis fanatics are traveling to Baltimore this weekend to check out some of the sport's finest spinning serves, kill shots and fancy footwork. It's the North American Table Tennis Championships. More than 200 teams from five continents are taking part. Among them, nine teams from China. It's a chance for the Chinese to showcase their extraordinary talent and drum up excitement for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

NPR's Andrea Hsu caught up with on Chinese team and a table tennis celebrity at a meet and greet just outside Washington, D.C.

ANDREA HSU: This is the Potomac Table Tennis Club in Potomac, Maryland. But judging from the 200 or so people packing this gym, it could be somewhere in China. The manager of the club, Herman Yeh, is scrambling to set up more chairs.

Mr. HERMAN YEH (Potomac Table Tennis Club): It's quite a big turnout. This the first time this so much crowd.

HSU: In this crowd is Sharon Wong. Three decades ago she was a professional ping pong player in Shanghai. Now she's a realtor in Maryland. Like many here, she's come to see one player in particular - Liang Geliang.

Ms. SHARON WONG: (Speaking foreign language)

HSU: In the past, we really worshipped him, she says. Though I'm very excited to see him play tonight.

To a generation of Chinese, Liang Geliang is nothing short of a national hero. He was a table tennis world champion in the 1970s and took part in ping pong diplomacy, which led to the warming of ties between the U.S. and china. Liang is now 56, balding and jolly.

He's a coach at Peking University, which will host the ping pong matches at the Beijing Olympics. And this weekend in Baltimore, he's taking out his paddle and his moves, competing with players who weren't even alive back in the ‘70s.

Mr. LIANG GELIANG (Peking University): (Speaking foreign language)

HSU: Playing with 18- and 19-year-olds keeps me young, he says. Now that the quality of life in China has improved, people eat and drink like crazy. Only exercise will save you from old age.

No one here seems to care that Liang Geliang is getting up in years. He's swarmed by adoring Chinese journalists and fans. And Liang is asked about a time in 1973 when he lost three matches in a row. What happened, a fan wants to know, and is it true that you were in tears on the way back to the hotel?

Mr. GELIANG: (Speaking foreign language)

HSU: The former world champion explains it had to do with the change in the paddles. The pressure was immense. I cried on the spot.

But it's all smiles here tonight, and the real treat comes with an exhibition doubles match. Liang and teammate Leil Wei, also world champion, against two other former Chinese national team players who now live in the U.S. The four play an intense match filled with deft leaps, impossible shots and crowd-pleasing points.

(Soundbite of applause)

HSU: The final score, 11-9. Liang's side wins. But the evening leaves no one disappointed and everyone pumped up for the Olympics in 2008.

Andrea Hsu, NPR News, Washington.

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