As the day went on, the sound of hollow plastic hitting wood got louder and louder as people made their way into the Maryland Table Tennis Center Friday, until the cacophony of bouncing pingpong balls could be heard in the parking lot.
That sound, at least for the owners of the Gaithersburg center, might signify a new beginning for a local sports industry trying to again emerge as the best and more popular in the country.
“It’s growing so fast everywhere that I thought we should be competing with these people, we should be doing more,” said Wen Hsu, a co-owner of the center, which recently doubled in size in a bid to draw more budding table tennis players to play alongside its more elite ones.
Table tennis as a sport has held a strong following in Montgomery County since the early 1990s, when the first official clubs began opening in the wake of its establishment as an Olympic sport in 1988.
Maryland as a state has produced dozens of winners of junior Olympic medals for table tennis, including last year’s gold medalists for Boy’s Team play under 18, according to USA Table Tennis — the national association for the sport — records. Last year’s 2011 U.S. Nationals, the countrywide table tennis tournament, was won by Peter Li, who trains in private clubs in Rockville and Gaithersburg.
Collegiate table tennis has also grown. In 2001, there were little more than 30 schools in the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association tournaments, according to the group. Last year, there were 148.
In April, the Maryland Table Tennis Center decided to renovate its facility doubling in size to about 10,000 square feet and 16 tables, the first growth for the 21-year-old club.
Maryland currently has eight clubs sanctioned by USA Table Tennis, five of which are headquartered in Montgomery County. There are more than 300 such clubs across the country supporting 8,000 players, said Larry Hodges, a coach and one of the founders the Maryland Table Tennis Center and Club JOOLA in Rockville, the most recently-opened table tennis training facility in the county.
Many groups rely on local and regional tournaments to maintain membership and keep its non-junior members interested. The Potomac Country Table Tennis Club, which plays in two recreation centers in Potomac, sports 145 members; a number its organizer, Herman Yeh, said has been steady for years as players come to compete twice a week.
Regular competition is what has brought Ellicott City’s Tong Tong Gong, 14, to the Gaithersburg tennis center since his was 7 years old. Gong made the U.S. Cadet team for the second straight time this year, the national squad for players 15 years old or younger, and hopes to make the 2016 Olympic Games.
“It’s a lot of work, though” he said.
Hodges, who is solely a coach now, said the Maryland Tennis Center has thrived mainly on its private coaching. The center’s three other coaches spend more than 50 hours per week giving lessons, which cost $50 to $60 per hour for private sessions.
Afternoons are open play, which brought about 30 people, mostly children, to the center to compete Friday evening. Hodges said most weekends bring about 60 people, some of whom get interested enough in the sport to take lessons.
No American athlete has ever won an Olympic medal for table tennis since the sport was introduced in 1988, according to Olympic committee records.
Hodges said he hopes young players like Gong will inspire a generation of players.
“I think when you start playing you want to get better and see how good you can get,” he said