Serious Fun at the Friendship Center
by Lori Carroll
August 23, 2019

For those who have not stopped in to the US-Sino Friendship Center at 123 West 2nd Street, there might be some surprises inside: a travel agency, a reflexology practice, yoga, massage therapy, and ping pong.

Chinese businessman Glad Chang bought the former Marie Lindsay’s Furniture Store building to use as a way of connecting Chinese visitors to Muscatine and educating Americans about Chinese culture. He also bought Muscatine Travel Agency and moved it across the street into the building. Besides the businesses already mentioned, there are lots of Chinese art and photography on display, and a beautifully ornate table used for tea ceremonies like those in China. Chang’s latest idea to connect Americans and Chinese visitors was to start a ping pong club.

Ping pong, formally known as table tennis, began in Victorian England, but is more often associated with China, where the sport is taken very seriously. Table tennis is governed by the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF), founded in 1926. It has been an Olympic (summer) sport since 1988, with several event categories.

Most of us think of ping pong as a fun activity we did in a friend’s basement in junior high, but there are some Muscatine residents who are still playing as adults, even into retirement. Since April, they have been gathering on Tuesdays from 5:00 pm until at least 8:00 pm at the Friendship Center.

Loosely “managed” by Scott Phelps, the group of five men playing this past Tuesday also included Austin Hohenadel (the youngest player, at thirty), Eldon Ballenger, Jr., Tommy Van Est, and Dave Abbott.

Abbott, a retired chemist and business consultant, began playing just for fun while working on his PhD, but quickly found it to be a serious and challenging endeavor. He eventually went on to win state championships in Tennessee, Indiana (one time each), and Iowa (four times). Because of a series of moves, he gave up the sport for fifteen years, but has returned to it because of the club at the Friendship Center. Interestingly, after suffering a spinal injury three years ago which caused some limitations, Abbott has been more mobile to play the sport since the other guys built “Oscar,” a wheeled platform seat with its own ball container attached. He still has lightning-quick reflexes, and finds that his endurance has increased dramatically since starting again in April.

During this interview, all of the men – and especially Abbott – were eager to talk about their equipment (which includes at least one paddle each, all with special rubber for different types of serving and returns) and the grips (either “shakehand” or “penhold”) and techniques they use to win. There are five tables, including two beautiful tables from China and another that has a training “robot.” Games are played to eleven points, with each player serving twice before the other serves again. A match is completed when one player wins three out of five games, and in tournaments the final match is four out of seven.

The Ping Pong Club is open to anyone and costs $15/month, which, if you play every Tuesday for three-four hours, translates into a little more than $1 an hour. Even better, the “regulars” are very happy to train new players and coach them to play their best. You are guaranteed to have lots of fun and burn lots of calories!

Questions? Call Scott Phelps at 563-571-5015.

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