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Danny Seemiller

Dan SeemillerMarch 2, 1968--let's start there; 13-year-old Danny, having come up out of the basement where he learned to play with his older brother Bill, lost in the PA Team Championships to both Erich Haring and Mal Anderson, later more respected officials than players.

But by the 1969 USOTC's, 15-year-old unranked Danny, with his unusual, one-side-of-the-racket, "window-wiper" style, augmented by his ability to strategically flip his anti and regular sponge sides, was not only the best Junior in PA but among the best in the Midwest. In the USOTC Junior Division he was 23-3, losing one of those matches to Muskegon's MVP winner Lester Davis (22-0), deuce in the 3rd.

That season, too, he was beaten in the U.S. Open U-15 final by Texan Kevin Bell, but won the U-15 Doubles with Bill Zatek and the Under 17A Doubles with Don Zatek--his first National Championships. One might argue that, though Danny always preferred singles to doubles, he would one day be judged an even better doubles than singles player?

In the summer of 1970 Danny made sacrifices to sharpen his game for the prestigious Toronto Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament--especially the U.S. vs. Canada Junior International Matches. Discouragingly, though, Capt. Jack Howard didn't use him, and I remember writing Danny's a mite upset father, Ray, a sympathetic and I hoped encouraging letter urging him to prevail on Danny to persevere.

In the '70 USOTC Jr's., Danny (16-1), lost only to Pontiac's Bill Lesner. In the '71 U.S. Open U-17's Danny again lost to Lesner (the eventual winner) in the semi's, after being up 2-0. As you can see, getting to be a Champion, even for one with such a great fighting spirit as Danny, wasn't easy.

But he did have a memorable learning experience that "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" spring of '71 when, as part of a U.S. Junior Team under Capt. Dell Sweeris, he made a pilgrimage to the Junior World's and the English Junior Open at Canterbury in England.

Still, Danny was not totally committed to table tennis. That summer of '71 he'd been playing American Legion high school baseball and had a try-out for the Pirates. Scouts watched him play 2nd and 3rd, tested his arm, his running speed, and promised that their farm system would be interested in him next year. (Which they were, and the year after too.) Could Danny sooner or later be lured away from this minor sport for what might be a far more profitable and historic future? After all, he was always an excellent .500 make-contact hitter who reportedly once went 193 consecutive times at bat without striking out.

But Danny had what lots of aspiring young players around the country didn't have, a table tennis peer-support-group--which naturally, as later with brothers Ricky and Randy, was very helpful to him. With Joe Rokop, Bill Zatek, and Hank "Chip" Coulter, Danny had FUN winning the '71 Jr. USOTC's.

Singles Championships, though, were still eluding him. He lost to Mike Veillette in the U-17 final in the '72 Eastern's. And in the U.S. Open that followed he was beaten (as he was earlier in the Toronto CNE's) by 14-year-old Canadian Paul Klevinas. Nor did he win the Open Class A final against Vancouver's Zoltan Pataky, a former member of the '69-'70 Hungarian Junior Team that boasted such world-class stars as Gergeley and Klampar.

Danny then went on to lose the PA Closed to Bill Sharpe, the Minnesota Classic A final to Canadian Peter Gonda, and the Columbus Midwest Open to John Tannehill. However, in March, in the PA Open, he and his good friend Joe Rokop had more great FUN--in Doubles, by besting major Eastern opposition: the teams of Errol Resek/Dave Philip, Bernie Bukiet/Mitch Sealtiel, and Sam Hammond/Alex Shiroky. And in the U.S. Open Danny won another Doubles Championship--the Mixed A's with attractive teenager Sue Hildebrandt.

For the '71-'72 season Jack Howard's Computer Ratings had Seemiller listed as U.S. #65. But that summer and fall Danny went to train with Dell Sweeris ("If it wasn't for Dell, I'd be nothing," Danny'd say later), and took on, what few prospects could or would do with their lives, the full-time job--as much as 40-50 hours a week--of becoming (though he didn't know this yet) a professional table tennis player.

And then, amazingly, Danny seemingly overnight went from being a Class A runner-up player to being the #1 Qualifier on the U.S. World Team! In the '72 Trials to see who'd represent us at the '73 World's, Danny had the best (12-2) record, losing only to perennial U.S. Champion D-J Lee (10-4) and 50-year-old Bernie Bukiet (9-5). Later, Bernie was to say, "If Seemiller didn't have the antispin, he wouldn't be nearly this good. It's easy to make errors off it. His style game is like a penholder. He's young and strong, and with this spin he knows exactly what he's doing."

But despite his unprecedented Team Trial accomplishment, 18-year-old Danny's 10-10 Second Division Swaythling Cup play in Sarajevo didn't as yet impress world-class coach Ichiro Ogimura, and, on coming home, his losses in the 8th's of the Eastern's to Rory Brassington, and in the U.S. Open to George Brathwaite, were, for the press he was suddenly getting, almost embarrassing.

But, with another summer of training ("I always try the weirdest serves I can think of in practice"), Danny finally came into his own as a singles player. His first big tournament win was at the '73 Toronto CNE, where he had not yet perfected his powerful, point-winning loop. Shouting "That's it! That's it!"--his clenched fists raised high as point after point he repeatedly stalked a circle of coiled, concentrated energy away from but always back to the thrust of his never-budge-from-the-table blocking game--he defeated two-time U.S. Open runner-up John Tannehill in 5. "I met another warrior" was the way John, who'd been reading Carlos Castaneda, gamely, ruefully, put it.

This win was the beginning of a singular dominance by Danny in Toronto. For nine straight years he was in this CNE final, losing only in 1979 to the charismatic visiting French Champion Jacques Secretin (after being up 2-0), and in 1981 to the following year's U.S. Open Champion, Zoran "Zoki" Kosanovic, a former member of the Yugoslav National Team who'd immigrated to Canada.

Among Danny's victims in sometimes very hard-fought matches was early arch-rival Errol Caetano, many-time Canadian Champion. (Watching Danny's '74 final with Errol, Ray Seemiller in typically nervous father-fashion was heard to say more to himself than anyone else, "Win this one, Danny, and no one can doubt anymore that you're #1").

Other victims included: the ex-world-class Yugoslav International Zlatko Cordas, who for a while in the '70's was the Canadian National Coach; England National Team Member Nicky Jarvis; U.S. Champions Scott and Eric Boggan; and even, in the 1980 final, Danny's aging mentor and doubles specialist Dell Sweeris.

In 1973, too, Danny (with Dell, Mike Veillette, Pete Kelly, and George Buben as Capt.) would win the first of his U.S. Open Team Championships. Excruciating wins and losses at these exciting USOTC's would follow until the Seemiller brothers' last hurrah in 1986. To take a few examples. In '77, down 4-2 in the final to the Boggan brothers and Rutledge Barrry, they pulled out a 5-4 win. In '79 they beat the eventual winners, Kosanovic, Caetano, Derek Wall, and Alan Heap, 5-4, but a 5-4 loss to the Boggans, Attila Malek, D-J Lee, and Mike Lardon kept them from a win. In '82 there was a 5-4 semi's loss to Nigeria. And in '84 another semi's loss, a 5-4, 9th-match, 21-19-in-the-3rd back-breaker to the Yasaka Team of Lekan Fenuyi, Chartchai Teekaveerakit, Sean O'Neill, and Perry Schwartzberg. But to be in contention year after year for all those years--what FUN!

After the '74 U.S. Open, Danny, taking over from D-J, became the #1-rated player in the U.S.--a position he would hold until the fall of '81 when he'd be replaced by Eric Boggan.

Moreover, with the coming '74-'75 season, Danny would begin to be regarded a world-class player. He played abroad--took games from formidable players. At Karlshamm in the Swedish Open he lost to future World Doubles Champion, Yugoslav great Dragutin Surbek in the 8th's, 3-1 (six months later, in the Canadian Open he would lose to him 3-2). And at London in the Pickwick Invitational he lost to, but had challenged, top English Internationals Nicky Jarvis and Denis Neale, 2-1.

At the '75 Calcutta World's, Seemiller started to amass, in Second Division Swaythling Cup play, an absolutely incredible record for consistently fine play. (Our U.S. Teams during Danny's prime, though always backed by wildly-screaming entourages--were forever struggling to get into, and stay in, the First Division.) It took a very good player to beat Danny in those years. In Calcutta he was 18-1, including three wins in our (as Capt. I couldn't hold back the tears) 5-4 loss to Poland that kept us from advancing. In '77 he was 26-0! And in '81 (when we were back in the Second Division again), he was 19-0! All in all then, against recognizably good opposition, he had a 63-1 record! "If the U.S. had three Danny Seemillers," someone said, "they'd be #6 in the world."

No chance, even back in 1975, that Danny was awed by world-class players. "Once you're in with them," he said, "some days you've got them." How ambitious, how intense, he was. "Oh, if I were only living in Yugoslavia," he said dreamily, thinking then he could play with Surbek and 1975 World runner-up Anton "Tova" Stipancic.

Generally Danny's conduct was exemplary. But, sometimes, frustrated, involved in a dispute or disgusted with himself at losing a match, he was understandably human, was not beyond an occasional curse word, some out-and-out name-calling, even serious abuse of his racket. I remember, for instance, he wasn't too happy about repeated losses overseas to the Dane Claus Pedersen, or here in the U.S. to the visiting Thai Charlie Wuvanich. But, characteristically, he was ready to face reality; his game still needed a lot of work. "That block of mine's always been my nemesis," he said. "It always comes back to haunt me."

Back in England again, at the Pickwick, now called the Manchester Invitational, Danny finally beat Pedersen, and at the Middlesex Open he'd become more aggressive with his serve and follow game so that he not only won the Doubles with brother Ricky but the Singles as well--over Denis Neale (later, at the '95 World's, the Capt. of the English Team). He also won the respect of English promoter Mike Lawless who wrote our U.S. Association that Danny "was far and away the better player than the one who was with us last year" and emphasized what "a credit to American table tennis" he was.

In the Yugoslav Open, Danny had a good win over Kosanovic, another of his arch-rivals in the next six years, then lost, 24-22 in the 4th, to the German star Jochen Leiss, who would later win our '77 U.S. Open.

Trying to kill not themselves but just some time before watching the final matches in this Ljubljana tournament, Danny, Ricky, and Mike Veillette decided to climb a hill or two behind the Tivoli Hall playing site. A scary mistake. They were stopped and at the point of a machine gun were frisked, their camera taken away, and then, hands up, hoping they wouldn't be shot in the back, were forced to literally slide their way back down, whereupon they were grabbed, taken into custody, and held for hours.

"I swear, I never faced anything like this in my life," Danny would say later--though he was talking about Huang Liang, the "unbelievable" Chinese chopper with the strange Tientsin rubber, he had to play in the Swedish Open. "I missed 4 out of every 5 serves," he said.

New experiences were forthcoming back in the U.S. too. In the late fall of '75 Danny faced Insook Na (not yet Bhushan and not yet winner of the first of her record 11 U.S. Closed Singles Championships) in a televised "Battle of the Sexes" show. The men in their respective sports (Bjorn Borg, Hale Irwin, Jerry West...) had to give their female counterparts a slight edge--Danny, for example, had to win the point by his 8th stroke. Later, in the spring of '77 Danny would play in the first of two back-to-back CBS Bristol-Myers-sponsored "World Racquets Championships" (squash, racketball, tennis, table tennis, badminton)--the gimmick here being the stars (Sharif Khan...Guillermo Vilas) had to compete in all other sports but their own.

On into 1976, and controversy. The top U.S. players, Danny as much as anyone, had not been happy about the horribly disorganized 1974 World Team Tryouts--the poor playing conditions, the ridiculous number of matches, the lack of USATT supervision and support--and so had formed a short-lived Players Association that vehemently protested the mere $1500 in prize money being offered at the '76 U.S. Open in Philadelphia. But ugly as our picketing no doubt looked, it did dramatize the players' concerns and helped to bring about the inaugural $13,000 U.S. Closed at Caesars Palace that Dec.--a Closed wherein Danny would begin to accumulate the first of...five National Singles Championships, seven Mixed Doubles Championships, and 11 Men's Doubles Championships (8 in a row with brother Ricky).

But counteracting that success was Danny and Dave Sakai's bold try and subsequent failure to bring the 1979 World Championships to Hartford, CT. One drawback was the timidity of the USATT E.C. to enthusiastically back the project. No surprise, then, perhaps, that when a decade later Danny's playing progress would begin to decline he'd interest himself in Association politics, would win first a Vice Presidency, then later two terms as President.

But in 1976 Danny's game is far from declining. Indeed, he's just been ranked among the top 30 players in the world, and in tournaments here in the States, with his devastating loop kill, he seldom loses a game to any native-born player.

In the '77 U.S. Open, Danny suffered two striking final-game, final-match losses. In Singles, down 10-2 in the 5th to Leiss, he rallies to 15-all, but can't win it (small consolation, I'm sure, that he would beat him in '79 at Pyongyang). In Doubles, Danny and Ray Guillen, his '77 Birmingham World's teammate, are up 20-19 match-point against Leiss and Peter Stellwag when the Germans score on an edge ball and go on to win 22-20. Leiss said he thought it "unprofessional" of Seemiller to holler after he'd won big games or, worse, points. "Of course," he added, "since there aren't any spectators in America, the only thing you can do is try to psyche yourself up."

In the next few years, Danny would continue to have about as much success in the stronger U.S. Opens as in the weaker U.S. National's. In the '78 Open at Oklahoma City, he lost in the final to Japan's Norio Takashima, one of the world's best defenders. In 1980 at Fort Worth, teaming with Eric Boggan and Ray Guillen, and with Houshang Bozorgzadeh (whom he'd recently accompanied to Teheran) as his long-time Capt.-Coach, he led the U.S. to victory in the Open Team Championship with a semi's win over Sweden's Michael Appelgren and a deuce in the 3rd win over South Korea's Kim Wan. Also, teamed with Ricky, Danny won the first of their two U.S. Open Doubles Championships over Kosanovic and Guillen, 25-23 in the 5th. And in 1981 at Princeton, in the semi's of the U.S. Open Team's, Danny and Eric are down 2-0 to the South Koreans, but persevere to a 30-28 in the 3rd win in the doubles, after which Danny beats Kim Wan 26-24, 21-19, and Eric downs Kim Ki Taek in straight games to cap a sensational comeback.

Did they win this 1981 final? Against Li Zhenshi (later to become the U.S. Men's Team Coach), Cai Zhenhua, and Xie Saike, all World Doubles Champions? Uh, no...though the matches were not without interest. Once, in the singles against Li Zhenshi, Danny, on serving into the net, had screamed to himself, "Ahhh! You play so bad!" Which prompted a straight-faced someone to say to me, "Don't be fooled. Danny did that deliberately. He's dumping to the Chinese."

Back in 1977 at the USOTC's Danny had unexpectedly lost to the then 14-year-old Eric Boggan, his soon-to-be teammate at the '79 Pyongyang World's. But after beating Eric in the final of the fall '78 Nissen Open (a tournament Seemiller over the years regularly won), Danny confided prophetically that of the U.S. players Eric had the best chance to beat him, his brother Scott the next best chance (and then, he might have added, Attila Malek had a chance too?).

I've always appreciated how Danny over the years has technically and psychologically helped a number of younger players, welcomed them at his training camps, put them up on occasion in his home, allowed them to be privy to the intimate camaraderie and table tennis shop talk of his friends, knowing full well that some of these younger players, as their games improve, will become his strongest competitors. Eric, particularly, was to have an unparalleled U.S. Closed rivalry with Danny--bringing to both exhilarating wins and agonizing defeats.

In '78 Danny lost the U.S. Championship to Eric. In '79 to Attila. In '81 to Scott. And in '84 to Eric again. But he beat Eric in three finals. In '80 (that's the one where Eric on losing 3 points in a row berated himself loudly, said, "I can't concentrate!" and the umpire took a point away from him via the new "experimental" Point Penalty Rule, whereupon Danny streaked for 6 more in a row). In '82 (where Danny ran out the second game from 20-15 down, the fifth from 19-16 down). And in '83 (when down 17-15 in the first he again ran out the game and won the second at deuce). My god, it still pains me to write about them.

But ever intense, ever tenacious, Danny often had a good, calm head. After he'd lost to Eric in Bill Hornyak's '81 Duneland All-American Closed, someone asked him if he was in any way discouraged. "No," he said. "This has to be the best Closed table tennis anybody's seen in this country. Who's ever kept up this pace before? It's good for me if Eric gets better, then I can get better."

As Danny was to say a decade later, "All my career I've always been changing, looking at my game, figuring out what was next, or looking for weaknesses that still needed to be worked on....If I didn't do that, I wouldn't enjoy the game nearly as much."

No wonder before his thrilling, Butterfly-bonus-winning, back-to-back U.S. Championships in '82 and '83 he'd said, "I've been working on my defense more. I want to become an all-around player. If I chop correctly--that is, not merely passively--I'll get more opportunities to loop when my opponent's not ready to."

Perhaps both Danny's experience at the World's (he would eventually play in 8 such Championships), and his perennial play in the Western Japan Open wherein, through all those requisite matches against former World Champion Nobuhiko Hasegawa and others, he would repeatedly advance to the final, made him more aware of the benefits of the kind of coaching he could never get in this country and so more or less had to learn for himself, reinforce for himself, in his own clinics. At any event, Danny was convinced that "Eric and I are constantly playing mind games out there" and that "real table tennis" was all about "a lot of positioning, a lot of maneuvering."

Danny spoke of his "thinking man's style"--"I'm a driving player when I serve," he said, "but when I receive serve I play a mixed defense, which means I block but I also use antispin to change the speed of the ball." To prepare himself for playing the Chinese in the '83 Tokyo World's, he'd been reading in an English table tennis magazine of Cai Zhenhua's supposed weaknesses. And, lo and behold, if Danny wasn't 10-8 up in the 5th over the bat-twirling '81 World runner-up. But then the match was stopped for 15 minutes over a discussion of the legality of Cai's footstamping, and when play resumed Danny lost 9 of the next 10 points...and his chance for the win of a lifetime.

Danny was still having successes on the home front, though--he and Eric won the '83 U.S. Open Team's over Kosanovic and Caetano, and at the CNE in the fall he beat Kosanovic in the International Matches, and, in winning the Singles, both Caetano and Joe Ng.

Only gradually in the next few years would Danny begin to lose more and more matches--to the Canadians Kosanovic, Ng, Horatio Pintea, and Alain Bourbonnais; to the Boggan brothers, to future U.S. Champions Sean O'Neill and Chartchai Teekaveerakit; to Rey Domingo, Perry Schwartzberg, Brandon Olson, and Scott Butler...."My game is still strong when I'm on," said Danny at 32, "but when I play bad it can be real bad. Five years ago there's no way I could play poorly."

Danny knew he had to begin considering other options. But when the USATT refused to pay him more than a mere $200 a week to coach the '83 U.S. Team to the Pan-Am Games in Caracas he proudly declined. Two years later he resigned the USATT Vice-Presidency to direct the Lake Placid Resident Training Program, but then the USOC closed down that facility.

More bad news in the '85 Closed when Perry Schwartzberg, leading in mid-play, deliberately defaulted to Hawaii's Allen Kaichi in a naive, confused effort to advance his good friend Danny into the semi's. Danny, very distraught, had then to step aside in favor of 14-year-old Jimmy Butler.

A few months later, with a bad tournament in Louisiana redeemed only by a match-point edge that gave the Seemiller brothers a Doubles win, Danny would speak of the "long ride back" to Pittsburgh and how "after all these years, we're still traveling by car. Just can't make the last step up."

Perhaps now, having married Valerie, and with a baby daughter, Sarah, and almost 20 years of tournament play behind him, it was time to retire?...

Did he ever give such an idea serious thought?

He not only played in the '86 Closed tournament in Pittsburgh, he directed it. After losing, 18 in the 5th, in the semi's to Sean O'Neill, he didn't try out for the U.S. World Team, hoped to be named their Coach. But though that didn't happen in '87 in New Delhi, it did in Dortmund in '89.

And though he lost a close race to Mel Eisner for the USATT Presidency in 1988 (the same year he and Pat Cox opened their Pittsburgh Club), he was elected President in 1990 and served two terms. There were some who thought that an Association President ought to be retired from the sport, even after he'd hired an Executive Director. But winners are always over-extending themselves, and perhaps those who warn against burn-out have lost the Phoenix-flame themselves.

No, Danny wasn't stopping. Disappointments were inevitable--as for instance when in the '87 U.S. Open he was leading Sweden's Roger Lagerfeldt 20-15 in the 5th and lost 7 straight. Sometimes he wasn't prepared for tournaments, couldn't give 100%, but, like anybody else, he still had to go to "work." "I always try to make up mind games out there at the table for myself," he said. "Pretend I'm relaxing, playing golf with friends--to lighten things up a bit. If you can't keep it FUN, it's hard to win."

With the coming of the strong Chinese players to this country--Cheng Yinghua, "Jack" Tong-Sheng Huang, Huazhang Xu, David Zhuang, and Johnny Huang to Canada, Danny's chances of winning the most important U.S. and Canadian Open tournaments were minimal. But other events opened for him, and even though he'd lost the support of brothers Ricky and Randy who'd retreated from the sport, Danny continued to play astonishingly well in singles and doubles.

In the Jan., 1990 Ratings, he was still the #2 Olympic Eligible Male, and later that year proved he could win the U.S. Closed Men's Doubles with someone other than Ricky--in this case, O'Neill, whom he paired with to represent the U.S. at the Butterfly World Doubles Championship in Seoul. In 1991 he came first in the Olympic Qualifier and this gave him a much needed Elite Olympic Athlete Grant that provided health care for his family, soon to be augmented by the arrival of a son, Danny Jr.

Also, in 1991, 37-year-old Danny, paired with John Onifade, won the U.S. Doubles Championship for the 10th time. The next year in the quarter's of the U.S. Closed, down 20-18 in the 5th to John, Danny rallied to win 30-28. He also became the #3 man on the U.S. Team to the Gothenburg World's and was rewarded with another Grant. In '93, too, he won major Doubles events with Cheng Yinghua and Joe Ng.

In 1994, Seemiller teamed with Cheng and Todd Sweeris to win the U.S. Open Team Championship, then paired with David Zhuang to win the Doubles at the Closed.

In the last several years, Danny's taken advantage of his Senior status to win a number of 30's and 40's Singles (and with his friend Dave Sakai) Doubles events in the U.S. Open and Closed.

"Winning Senior Championships may not be the top of the line, like when you're winning U.S. Singles Championships," says Danny, "but if you enjoy the game, it really doesn't matter so much how high the level of accomplishment is....You're not really fighting the clock as you get older, but you keep trying to improve. I plan on staying near the top."

And no sooner having said that, he moved his family to New Carlisle, IN to take a full-time Coaching job in South Bend. Having gotten such wonderful cooperation from his young students and their encouraging parents, he's been motivated to start a new career with all the enthusiasm--no, even more enthusiasm--than he'd brought to extending his playing career. Now mornings at major tournaments he's the first to open the hotel coffee shop--a ready and eager Coach, and Manager too, prepared to prepare his charges to do their best. Indeed, with his continued idealism, his energy, his results, the USATT ought to name Danny Seemiller Coach of the Year....Uh-huh, in 1998 they did.