Peter Yang (left) and Tom Running: Madison's ping-pong community spans generations.
Ping pong in Madison has come out of the basement, literally. After calling the basement of the First Congregational Church on University Avenue home for the last two years, the Madison Table Tennis Club bounced over to new digs of its own (sort of) on Winnebago Street a few months ago.
In June, the club joined forces with a ragtag collection of stilt-walkers, German wheelers, jugglers and aerialists to found the Madison Circus Space, a converted industrial space at 2100 Winnebago. The ping-pongers have the run of the space on Monday and Wednesday evenings and on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The move has provided a major boost to the local table tennis scene.
"The club has always been a loose group of players looking for a home," says Tom Running, one of the club's coordinators and founders. "The church was very nice to us, but the space wasn't ours. We would get kicked out for weddings and things like that. So we decided to make that big, scary leap to many more hours and a lot higher costs."
A few other Madison groups were dreaming the same dream and going through the same growing pains -- groups like Madison Hoop Dance and the German Wheel Club -- and almost simultaneously, a light bulb switched on in their collective heads: If we share the labor and costs as a consortium, we can all make that dream a reality. Thus the Circus Space was born.
Some of the scariness of the leap has been mitigated by the shared nature of the space, and even so, "it's ours and we have a sense of ownership," Running says.
The Madison Table Tennis Club's roots go back to the early '90s, when Running and Aaron Avery, the club's other founder and coordinator, met as young paddle-pushers in the basement of the Memorial Union, a hotbed of ping pong action at the time. In about 1992 (nobody seems to remember the exact year), the pair shepherded a batch of regulars over to nearby Neighborhood House, 29 S. Mills, where the club was created as an actual entity with a name. It quickly became the epicenter of Madison table tennis, a place where the area's serious players could count on finding a good game. After meeting there for most of the next two decades, they shifted to the church. Now they've packed up their eight tables (leaving the Table Tennis Club of UW-Madison, which had been using MTTC's tables at the church, in a bit of a spot) and headed east.
The new space provides a venue for boosting the local scene as interest in the sport continues to grow. Running, a certified table tennis coach, is also hoping to recruit more members by doing more teaching now that he has steady access to an appropriate classroom (and more time on his hands, since retiring).
Ping pong has been gaining practitioners for the last several years, enjoying a surge in popularity nationwide. Madison's new table tennis mecca is a no-nonsense, warehousy sort of joint, not unlike the no-nonsense Ford's Gym, which sits across the parking lot from Circus Space. But down the Interstate in Milwaukee you can find Spin, a glitzy "ping pong nightclub" that's part of a chain whose other locations are in New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and Dubai -- not bad company for a Midwestern industrial town.
Spin's ownership group includes actress Susan Sarandon and Jonathan Bricklin, the 30-something semipro ping pong player Sarandon dumped Tim Robbins for.
Like the Sarandon-Bricklin relationship, one of the best things about table tennis is that young and old can play together. "It's great exercise, but it's not too hard on the body," says Running. "And it's great mental exercise too."
Running, at 58, is one of the best players in town, and one of the best over-50 players in the state. At the club's other age extreme is 14-year-old Peter Yang, a ninth-grader at Madison Memorial High School. Last year, Yang took first place in open singles at the Wisconsin State Table Tennis Championships, beating the state's best adult players. Yang has been playing since he was 8. His family spends much of the summer in Beijing, where table tennis is huge, so Peter gets the chance to train with high-level players there every year.
In between Running and Yang (though somewhat closer in age to Running) is club co-founder Avery, who is a former state champion. Yang and Avery teamed up to claim the doubles championship at this year's state tournament.
Despite ping pong's growing popularity in this country, the United States remains a table tennis backwater in international competition. For the most part, here the game is still largely a family-room frolic. In contrast, it's a big deal in places like China, Korea, Japan and several European countries. That shows in the results at the Olympics and other international competitions.
"It'll be a long time before the United States can think about becoming a table tennis powerhouse," says Running. "But if it's ever going to happen, it will start in places like our club."
Hey, we caught up in soccer, didn't we? Why not ping pong? With Susan Sarandon on board, nothing is impossible.
Madison Table Tennis Club