Call it a ping-pong pilgrimage.
Whitehorse Table Tennis Club members David and Alexander Zheng and Ryan and Zara Bachli travelled to China this summer to learn from the best, spending a month at a table tennis camp in Changchun in northeastern China.
The Zhengs have family in the city, an industrial hub of seven million people 12 hours from Beijing by train.
For the Bachlis, the trip was an eye-opener.
“I found it so overwhelming, there are so many people there,” said Zara on Sunday at the Whitehorse Table Tennis Club. “And I kind of have a fear of crowded places.”
The Bachlis were amazed by the density of the Chinese cities and the vastness of the farms in between — as well as the country’s passion for the game.
“It’s like their national sport, it’s what they’re all about. You don’t really go halfway on anything in China, you always go all the way on it,” said Zara.
“Even when we walked down the street, there was table tennis everywhere — recreational or competitive, it’s very popular — like soccer is here, ” said the Zheng’s mother Xiu-Mei Zhang.
“It was our parents idea to send us there,” said Zara. “With the (Canada Winter) Games coming up they wanted us to get better and actually have a chance of winning something.”
Xiu-Mei Zhang contacted her brother, and he set them up in the month-long intensive camp.
“We didn’t get to visit our family too much, because we slept near the ping-pong camp,” said David, who played translator for the Bachlis for the trip. They stayed at a school that taught English.
“Everyone was exited to practice their English with us, and people aren’t shy, they very open and outgoing,” said Zara.
The training was intense and coaches had players working hard.
“Basically, they would make you try each movement for an hour. Every little movement, they perfected it. At the end we were sore,” said David with a laugh.
“It was seven hours of hitting the ball back and forth, six days a week,” added Ryan Bachli.
Will all the work pay off?
While they all play at different levels, all four players say their games have improved.
“I was self-taught, and I didn’t really understand the movements,” said David. “There are so many more things to it, they look at much more seriously there.”
The Bachlis have a bit more competitive experience, playing for Team Yukon at the Arctic Winter Games and the Western Canadian Championships last season.
“Form, technique, they teach you all kinds of stuff,” said Ryan.
Team Yukon Coach Kevin Murphy hopes the overseas exposure will give his players a boost.
“I figure they’ve gotten a year and a half of coaching in one month, and that will really accelerate their development,” said Murphy.
“If a month in China hasn’t done anything to their game, there’s something wrong — but we’ll see,” added Table Tennis Yukon president Dave Stockdale.
“I’m really proud,” said Xiu-Mei Zhang. “It’s David’s first time on his own, and he took his friends from Whitehorse all the way to Beijing, and being a translator. It’s good for table tennis, and culture, and improving the language.”
“Zara and Ryan made a big improvement,” she added. “Learning a little bit of Chinese, I’m impressed at that young age, in a totally different culture and food, learning and adapting — all the people really liked them.”
The Bachlis aren’t in any hurry to get back to China, however.
“It’s a once in a lifetime thing, I don’t want to go back,” said Ryan.
His sister was a little more diplomatic, “Maybe I’ll go back when I’m older, when things are a little different there,” she said.
Sunday was the season opening session for the club. They meet every Sunday from 1:30 to 5 p.m. at Whitehorse Elementary School.