1983: Insook Bhushan/ Brian Masters Win Pan Am Games.
Our U.S. write-up of the Pan Am Games, held Aug. 14-29 in Caracas, Venezuela, was varied and extensive. However, though I’ll give everyone reporting at least some say, to avoid needless repetition I have to be selective and so of course will choose that coverage which I think best.
I’ll begin with my own article (Timmy’s, Sept.-Oct., 1983, 21-22), relying, since I wasn’t at the tournament, on interviews I had with ITTF North American Vice-President George Pardon (who’s also the President of the Canadian TTA); Dennis Masters (USTTA Pan Am Team Manager); Gus Kennedy (USTTA Executive Vice President); and U.S. and Canadian players Sean O’Neill, George Brathwaite, Randy Seemiller, Joe Ng, and Horatio Pintea. Then go on to Sean O’Neill’s “Pan Am Afterthoughts” (same Timmy’s pages as above), Diana Gee’s “Pan Am Memories” (SPIN, Oct., 1983, 16), U.S. Coach Henan Li Ai’s “Pan American Games” (SPIN, Oct., 1983, cover+), and finally Danny Seemiller’s “Counter Drive” article in SPIN, Oct., 1983, 7 (also printed as “Li, Si…Danny, No” in Timmy’s, Sept.- Oct., 1983, 22).
Up until a week or so before the U.S. Team was to leave for Caracas it was understood by the USTTA that nine players—five men (Brian Masters, Sean O’Neill, George Brathwaite, Perry Schwartzberg, and Randy Seemiller) and four women (Insook Bhushan, Diana Gee, Sheila O’Dougherty, and Alice Green—had qualified for and would play in the Pan Am Games.
Suddenly, though, at the last minute that roster, without warning, changed. Sorry, but there was now a maximum of only six, not nine, players who could represent any one country. Constant bickering between the Venezuelan government, the Venezuelan Olympic Committee, and the Pan American Sports Organization that finally took over preparation for the Games, plus a plague of “administrative, construction, and organizational problems” (N.Y. Times, Aug. 6, 1983) made for a very shaky trip from the start, even though USOC Director of Operations Jerry Lace had given the go-ahead to all nine players, and to Team Manager Dennis Masters, and Coach Li Henan. But, o.k., if worst came to worst, if all arguments failed, it was decided the U.S. would play four men and two women (Coach Li had also had the option of choosing three men and three women), and Randy, Sheila, and Alice would have to sit out.
The worst is what happened (though the Venezuelans wouldn’t explain why they were limiting the teams)—and Randy, believing it would, didn’t go to Caracas, just went home. He was disappointed, but not sulking, for he was quite pleased with his $600 Pan Am wardrobe.
And what a mess it was when the players got to Venezuela. The Olympic Village consisted of huge, uncompleted building blocks, surrounded by barbed wire, with the guards sometimes casually flipping their guns as people walked by. The dining hall was the only building at the ready. The dorms had no doors or window frames (just a hole in the wall which made it easy for the mosquitoes), the cement floor had a constant film of dust, there was no electricity, no closets or drawers in which to put one’s things, no blankets, no hot water until the third day, no shower curtains so that the bathrooms were invariably full of water with “things” swimming in them. There was no water other than bottled water to drink. But since the Canadians were giving out anti-bacteria pills you could try a Venezuelan pop (one player called it “a kind of brown cola”).
Worse, there just wasn’t much to do—listen to a folk-singing group maybe. Fortunately some U.S. players made friends with a family who owned a restaurant about a mile away and they spent quite a bit of time there. Also, the exclusive Habrica Club offered U.S. Team members their comfortable training facilities and helped them from going stir-crazy.
Why didn’t the players move to a hotel in Caracas? Yeah? Who would pay for it? Not the USTTA—though the Canadians did finally get some of their players away for an R & R period.
One thing the players did was ride buses. From the dorms to the practice hall or the tournament site and back again—once, twice a day, an hour one way, an hour back…through day-long traffic. Sounds really energy-sapping, huh?
Of course it was even worse for the officials because the organizers were forever calling meetings and canceling them with abandon. The draw-makers were so secret and therefore so offensive as to be absurd. It was clear that they wanted nothing to do with anything so democratic as a Jury Meeting. In fact, there were a hell of a lot of people who felt there was outright collusion between the Cubans and Venezuelans. Finally, after the U.S., Canada, Jamaica, and Chile threatened to withdraw, the draw-makers agreed to have two rather than three groups in the Men’s Team event, and now Cuba would have to work a little to make the semi’s criss-cross.
Still the draw stunk, for the strong U.S. Team was to play the strong Dominican Republic and Jamaica teams in their first and second rounds. And, crazy, though we’d gotten to Caracas 11 days before we were actually to begin playing, when it came time to start we weren’t ready.
The Dominicans had the advantage of a warm-up match while we drew a bye. They opened with a whitewash of Peru. However, both Fermin and Vila, the Dominican #2 and #3, got to play Walter Nathan, destined to be a Singles semifinalist, and that made them the more tournament tough.
Who were we gonna play in our opener against the Dominicans? (Four years ago in a Pan Am “Exhibition” in San Juan, when we were struggling to get Group A status for Table Tennis in the Olympics, they’d beaten us 5-4, deuce in the 3rd in the ninth match.) Well, surely we’d play Brian, who with his unorthodox style was a must. And Sean, the National Sports Festival Champion. Perry? He’d had to have a wisdom tooth pulled two weeks earlier in Miami en route and with a still swollen jaw hadn’t fully recovered. George? He’d beaten Sean, Perry, and Randy at the final Pan Am Trials. Coach Li opted for Perry, thinking that though George knew these opponents (they’d all played around the Caribbean) he would get looped down.
In the opening match, Masters had no trouble at all with Vila, who a couple of weeks before in Guyana had almost won the Caribbean Championship—beating his teammate Fermin in the semi’s and only just losing to Cuba’s Betancourt, 26-24 in the 5th, in the final. But in the second match, Mario Alvarez, winner of the ’82 Central America and Caribbean Games in Havana, and who as Dominican Amateur Athlete of the Year was the flag-bearer for that country’s entire contingent at the Games, was much too strong for Sean, as was Fermin for Perry.
World #39 this Dominican team was—but there were an awful lot of good players in the world, an awful lot of professionals, or wanna-be professionals.* Masters got by Alvarez two straight (deuce in the second)—but Schwartzberg (“Keep the serves SHORT, Perry!”) wasn’t in it against Vila who, 25 years later, would be the President of the Dominican T.T. Association.
Sean now won an extremely important match against Fermin, 19 in the 3rd—but again Perry (what was Coach Li’s reason for playing him in the 7th position?) couldn’t get that first game to start him going.
Now, with the tie 4-3, favor of the Dominicans, Masters had to beat Fermin. But, though he’d have to see a chiropractor about back and neck problems he was having about this time (a carryover from the last Training Camp), and though he was down 1-0 and at deuce in the second, damned if Brian didn’t pull out that game to stay alive. (Did the TV people who’d come around about this time get that game win on camera—or were they waiting for something better?) In the third, though, upset by the hyped-up Fermin, Brian threatened to pull out something else and was later reprimanded for the grand gesture. That was bad of course. But far worse, Jimmy Connors and I would argue, was that he lost the game, the match, and the tie.
Well, there was always Jamaica coming up. If we could thump them and they could trounce the Dominicans, we might—if we had a suddenly-called-down-from Canada George Pardon, ITTF Vice President for North America, to supervise the Venezuelans huddling over a tie-breaker—still have a chance.
This time Coach Li played Brian, Sean, and “The Chief.” Against the experienced Jamaican International Steve Hylton, George was right in there in the first, but when he couldn’t win it at deuce he couldn’t stay in the match. Nor—something of a surprise—could O’Neill win a game from Colin McNeish. Nor—definitely a surprise—could Brian do anything against David Marchalleck. So 1-2-3 down we went.
But then Brathwaite finally prevailed over the quarter-century younger McNeish. And Masters showing…well, all heart, won deuce in the 3rd over Hylton. So we were back in the tie.
But Sean—his soft touch wasn’t so effective on these tables against these loopers—couldn’t turn the third his way against Marchalleck, who’s improved in part I think because he’s just gotten physically stronger in the last few years. Masters again won his two matches for the tie, downing McNeish. But again 5-3 was the best we could do as Marchalleck (never the Jamaican Champion) won his third match of the tie against Brathwaite.
So that was it. The rest of the Team ties just didn’t mean anything. World #46 Venezuela we downed 5-2. Unranked Peru, who’d gotten by Venezuela 5-4, we barely beat 5-4 when “The Chief” finally put it to Viacava, 19 in the 3rd. Boy, were we down. It was really a terrible show we were putting on. One final tie against Chile we won, 5-2, and limped away without a medal.
Meanwhile, how was World #41 Canada doing? And were they, by the way, being coached by Kosanovic? (Of course, being a professional, he couldn’t PLAY for Canada at these Pan Am Games, though he could at the much larger World Championships.) No, as it turned out, Zoki wasn’t representing Canada at all—he’d been busy coaching the Dominicans.
You didn’t know? The Ontario Association certainly did. Zoran was being paid to coach the Dominicans—the offer had been made long ago, the time just happened to be prior to the Pan Am Games. So, as a professional he’d taken the job—nothing personal.
And Errol Caetano, where was he? Not on the Canadian Team here. What with the pre-Caracas training expected of him, he thought it “Ridiculous—to take one whole month off work to play less than one week.”
So, Joe Ng, Horatio Pintea, and Alain Bourbonnais had a chance to bring home a Canadian win, did they? Well, they were in the easier bracket. They opened by beating Chile 5-3, when Bourbonnais dropped two matches, and an initially nervous Pintea lost his first match to Gambria, 18, -21, -23 (“The guy had a fast serve that was either underspin or topspin—you couldn’t tell”).
After which, Canada pounded away at World #50 Guatemala, and won 5-1.
But then, oh, oh, they met World #30 Brazil, who this spring at Tokyo advanced from the Third to the Second Category, downing Canada along the way. Only Ng could win a match—beat Inoguchi. This Japanese had played very well at the World University Championships last year before losing to Men’s Champion Kim Ki Taek. Claudio Kano, who’d won the last Latin American Championship in Ecuador, and who’d battled Kosanovic through four games at the World’s, was too good for Ng and Pintea, as was Nascimento for Ng and Bourbonnais. Clearly the Brazilians were quite formidable, despite the fact that. Aristides Franca, Latin America Cup winner just a couple of years ago, wasn’t even on their team this year.
Canada did have a fine 5-2 win over Cuba. Bourbonnais perhaps was just outclassed, but first Pintea and then Ng beat the Cuban #1 Betancourt.
After annihilating Puerto Rico, 5-0, Canada had made it to the semi’s. Here they criss-crossed up with the Dominicans. And again only Bourbonnais was beatable. Pintea and Ng just played extremely well—and none of the Dominicans could touch them.
In the final, it was Canada back against Brazil. And again Brazil didn’t play Tetsuo, who’d soon be the Singles silver medalist. This time, switching the order, Canada did little better than last time, falling 5-2, when Ng again downed Inoguchi, and Pintea stopped Nascimento.
In the Women’s Team ties, the U.S., thanks to our still world-class player Insook, was a very big favorite to win. Lest you think I exaggerate, here are the scores of Insook’s matches in the Team’s: 9, 4; 6, 5; 6, 10; 4, 7; 7, 9; 5, 10; and 9, 11. It was a joke. You can imagine how much time she needed to spend at Colorado Springs, and then here in Caracas at preparing herself for competition like this.
As for Diana Gee, she lost a match to the Dominican Perez—but more than compensated for that with her fine win in the semi’s over Canadian Champ Mariann Domonkos. In the final she did well, too, taking Cuban Champ Madeline Armas, a lefty looper, to three. Definitely Diana did what was expected of her and more in helping the Team win a gold medal.
And speaking of gold medals, good for Pat O’Neill and Dennis Masters that they combined to insist that U.S. Team members Sheila and Alice get their medals too.
The Canadian women suffered a loss to Cuba when neither Thanh Mach nor Domonkos could beat Armas. But at least they got to the semi’s with a 3-2 win over Venezuela. For Mariann it was certainly nothing to write home about, though, for she lost to multi-time South American Champion Elizabeth Popper, who (I hope all t.t. aficionados saw this on TV) was given the great honor of lighting the Olympic Flame on behalf of ALL the athletes at the Games. More to Mach’s credit then that in an earlier match she went deuce in the 3rd with Elizabeth.
Because Insook could so dominate the Women’s field, it was rather straight-game easy for her and 14-year-old Diana (so long as the kid didn’t choke and she didn’t) to win the Women’s Doubles.
However, with young Sean against the stronger men players, winning the Mixed Doubles was certainly a worthy accomplishment. In the semi’s, Popper and her partner Lopez (who’d beaten Sean in the Team’s) had been three-game formidable. And in the final, Pintea and Domonkos, the Canadian Champions, the U.S. might well have lost to had Horatio been able to read Insook’s changing spin. So winning the seven-team Mixed Doubles gold medal at these Games was quite clearly Insook’s major success—and of course Sean’s.
Insook won the Women’s Singles—and with it her fourth gold medal. But I can hardly speak of it. They might as well have given it to her before play began. Her winning scores: 6, 2, 4; 3, 3, 3; 6, 8, 7; 11, 8, 4. Who could get excited about these wins? Insook herself? C’mon, she’s a longtime professional. She knows the score.
As for Diana, since she’s just not ready to beat Armas yet (Coach Li wants her to start using short pips—play like U.S. Open Champ Soo-ja Lee), she again did all that could be expected of her—had no bad losses.
In the quarter’s, Domonkos, who was insanely (yet all too sanely) placed in the same half as Bhushan, lost to Cuba’s Baez in the quarter’s after being up 2-0. Ohh, that had to have hurt. I heard later that Mariann had been playing too much table tennis, had only 10 days off all year, and was just tired out.
In the semi’s, Popper lost a five-gamer to Armas she’d like to forget, especially when she remembers she’d beaten her at the ’82 Central American and Caribbean Games.
Aside from the Mixed, only in the Men’s Singles could it be said that the U.S. worked hard and was rewarded with a winner. Although Brian (who was 10-2 in the Team’s) didn’t lose a game until the final, he did, 22-20 in the 4th, have to hold on for the gold. His final opponent, Japan-trained Tetsuo, didn’t even play for the Brazilians in the Team ties. Tetsuo, a good double-wing, off-the-table spinner, looked like he was getting more and more adjusted to Brian’s soft anti, so it was a relief to Masters and his supporters that the match ended when it did.
Semifinalist Nathan, before falling to Brian, deserved his bronze for outlasting Kano in five, while Tetsuo earned his silver by getting by the ever-threatening Alvarez in five. Pintea also continued his good play. First, he beat, O’Neill (some first-round match that was!) when Sean, in losing three straight, though up 10-0 in the 3rd, had trouble trying to backhand in Horatio’s serves. Then Horatio followed that win by coming from 11-6 down in the 5th to defeat Ecuadorian Champ Gustavo Ulloa before being stopped by Tetsuo.
Tetsuo and Kano swept through the Men’s Doubles in straight-game succession—knocking off Hylton/Marchalleck, Nunes/Gambria, and in the final Fermin/Vila. Brian and Sean won a bronze—beating Cuba’s Betancourt/Sosa before losing to the Dominicans Fermin/Vila. Both the Singles and Doubles format allowed only two members of a country to play, so in the Singles such strong players as Nascimento, Marchalleck, and Fermin (he’d flipped a coin with Vila to see who’d sit out and lost) were not included in the draw.
Really dopey, if you ask me.
Oh, yes, one other thing. I suppose somebody will want to know if they tested the table tennis players for drugs. No, they didn’t. Almost all agreed it was unnecessary.
Sean’s Pan Am Afterthoughts
We now move to Sean O’Neill’s memories of this special Pan Am experience:
“It all started back with the National Trials in Colorado in March right through to the playing of the National Anthem while Insook and I felt the weight of the Mixed Doubles gold medals.
So many benefits were derived by the Team. Thanks to Coach Li we learned the proper way to prepare for international competition. Her help and expertise were unbelievable. She tuned into every player’s needs and gave each of us technical and positive mental reinforcement. I hope she stays with the USTTA for a long time because she is without a doubt the best coach we could ever hope to have.
Thanks to the USOC and all its corporate sponsors it was Christmas in July when we were processed through at the Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, FL. We were literally outfitted from head to toe with a sensational wardrobe courtesy of Levi’s. Then there was a three-piece set of luggage, toiletries, even M&M’s and Snickers and other official Olympic products. It was great to be in Florida to enjoy the beach for three days.
Venezuela was beautiful. We had great food and everyone made the best of the not-quite-complete living conditions. Actually the Spartan facilities helped the athletes establish an easy camaraderie. We all had so many feelings in common. It was a kick to become friends with the U.S. Tennis Team who lived in the next room. I spent several evenings with Holmes and Korita. To see them play so well back home now at the U.S. Open is a great feeling. I spent many hours with the U.S. World Champion Archery Team. They were a fantastic group. Each evening they would predict what would be accomplished the next day and they followed through, taking every medal in all the events. The superstars of the basketball team were friendly and fun to be around, especially Perkins and Tysdale.
[As you can read elsewhere, we lost our opening Men’s team ties and any shot we had for a medal.] But seeing Insook and Diana shine through was terrific. They were class from start to finish and we were all so proud of them as they took the gold in every event.
Brian was by far our best player during the Team’s. His style and execution left his opponents destroyed. Then he had his finest hour in winning the Men’s Singles. I wish more of the U.S. could have seen him claim his reward. He really was sensational. I didn’t fare well in my first-round match against ex-Rumanian-now Canadian Horatio Pintea. He locked me up three straight in a match where I had trouble when he served and ended up being put on the defense while he controlled the tempo. He is a great player and will be improving even more as he plays for Nisse Sandberg’s Angby Club in Stockholm this season.
In the Mixed, I was nervous as my play with Insook met tougher opposition. But in the semi’s we got by the hometown Venezuelans Lopez/Popper in three. Then in the final against Canada’s Pintea/Domonkos play was tight. They won the big first game at 19 and I was worried. We were down 14-11 in the second due to our contrasting styles. But Insook took control and won point after point as her varied shops were misread and hit into the net. We pulled the second game out at 17 and then ran away with the third. Thanks again Insook, you are incredible.
Special thanks to the other Team players, too, for giving me such support.
Thinking about my personal performance now I feel that I benefitted immeasurably from the competition. Again I discovered what a different ball game it is when you are out of the comfortable confines of U.S. competition. I felt the pressure. Everywhere I was touted as the youngest American male athlete in any sport. CBS filmed one of my better matches against Fermin when I pulled out a 19-in-the- 3rd win after being down 19-16. They planned to use it in their coverage as I advanced. Needless to say, it never aired.
Most of all I know what I have to work on now to step up my game. Now I’m determined to go for every shot. I’m sure Insook’s execution inspired this resolve. Thanks again to Coach Li for her incredible support and to Dennis Masters for handling so well the enormous job of managing our players. It was the best learning experience I have ever had.”
Diana’s Pan Am Memories
Diana Gee had her share of memories too:
“This was my first big international tournament outside of the U.S. I was fortunate to have such a supportive manager, coach, and teammates. They made me laugh and gave me a lot of tips on how to prepare mentally. They also told me what tactics to use against specific opponents.
For various reasons, many athletes got sick during the Games. Following the first day’s Team competition—in which I played a nervous march I felt lucky to win against Puerto Rican chopper Leticia Castaldo—I began experiencing stomach pains that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did. On the van going to the Arena for our semifinal team match against Canada, I told Insook, ‘I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ Insook said I had to make it. I tried not to think about the pain but I could hardly walk.
It didn’t help that my first match in the semifinal was against Canada’s Mariann Domonkos. To my surprise, I was calm at the outset of this big match. Coach Li told me, ‘Forget about your stomach. Go out there and have fun. Try to play as if it was practice.’
In the first game, I felt like I was in a trance. I was alert and ready to fight it out. While I was playing, my stomach didn’t bother me. I lost the game at 17, but I sensed I had a chance to win. In between games, Coach Li told me to serve more topspin balls to Mariann’s backhand and get ready to smash the return. I agreed and realized that Domonkos had backhand-looped my chop serves a lot in the first game. The strategy worked and I won the second at 14.
In the third game, I told myself I had to prove that I can play the way I trained for such critical matches. I used the same service tactics again and mixed up my shots, using flips, blocks, and loops. The score was close throughout the game, but then I was up 19-16. Suddenly, though, it was 19-18 and I told myself a half dozen times that I wasn’t going to choke. I fought hard and won the next point to get a 20-18 advantage. I don’t remember how I did it, but I won the next point and match! Mariann was gracious in defeat.
My teammates were elated. Team Captain Sheila O’Dougherty shook my hand and said, ‘I thought your stomach said you couldn’t play.’ I appreciated this coming from her because I respect her serious attitude about the sport. Alice Green told me, “I have never seen another person have that much poise in such a big match.’ These words from Alice, a veteran of international competition, made me very happy. ‘You did really well,’ said Insook as she got ready for her own match. ‘I am proud of you, Diana,’ said Coach Li as she gave me a big hug. I was very fortunate to have her as my coach knowing that she was a world champion and had coached world-class players.
[Later, after Insook and Diana had won the Team title, including the key doubles match, Coach Li said, “Diana was not afraid. Although she was the youngest of all the women, and in her first big international competition, she always took the initiative.”]
For the Award Ceremony, we wanted our whole Women’s Team (four players and coach) to get up on the victory stand. The Venezuelan officials refused at first but gave in an hour later. My thanks to Mr. Dennis Masters, Mr. Pat O’Neill, and Mr. Gus Kennedy for their support. [Dennis said, ‘Diana played so well, you would have thought she had a great deal of international experience.’]
I shall always remember holding up the gold medals over our heads, watching the American flag being raised, and listening to the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ I was happy and proud, and my stomach pain had disappeared!”
Coach Henan Li Ai’s Pan Am Report:
“I don’t think I ever felt certain about going to the Pan American Games. Sue Butler had been working for months to get the necessary papers and as the departure time got closer, the process became more difficult. I needed a parole visa (permission to leave and return to the U.S.) and a work permit. I also had to be classified as a permanent resident applicant and be eligible for permanent residency under the priority system. It sounds very complicated and it is. Three days before I was to leave for Florida, Sue came home with a smile and the necessary papers.
We stayed in Florida for three days. We practiced daily at Newgy’s TTC and had great workouts. The club members were very nice to us. We received an incredible wardrobe from Levi’s that consisted of sweat suits, three pairs of shoes, jeans, shirts, blouses, pants, shorts, blazer, socks, belts, and more. Clothes were instantly altered if necessary. It was an impressive operation.
We arrived in Caracas on Aug. 11th and were assigned to the Pan American Village. The building where we stayed was still under construction. There was water on the floor and we were told not to drink from the taps as it was ‘not safe.’ The women had to shower in the men’s apartment. There were millions of mosquitoes and we were all bitten regularly. I was bitten on the eye and the next day it was swollen shut.
It was always noisy, day or night. Although it was hot in the daytime, it was cool in the evening.
We had almost two weeks before competition. There were three places to practice, and we trained daily, both on and off the table. The practice conditions were adequate but not outstanding.
After we won the Women’s Team event [with Insook dominating everyone, and Diana upsetting Canada’s #1 Domonkos,18 in the 3rd, while also 16, -19, -14 strongly threatening Cuba’s #1 Armas], Pat O’Neill, Dennis Masters, and Gus Kennedy told the Venezuelan officials that the U.S. would not mount the winners’ platform unless all members of their team received a Gold medal. Frankly, I didn’t think the officials would relent but indeed they did. I shall long remember all five of us with hands together holding the three medals above our heads. The other two medals would be given us the next day.
ITTF President Roy Evans and his wife Nancy attended the Games. He recognized me and we talked. He was happy to see that the level of play in North and South America had improved, and he congratulated our teams for their medal wins.”
Regarding the Men’s Team ties, Coach Li felt in our opener against the Dominicans we were “nervous and tight.” Then in our next tie against Jamaica we got off to that horrible 0-3 start and though “we never gave up” and “encouraged one another,” the best we could do was take three matches. As for the remaining ties, Coach Li’s advice was that “we must not be worried and disappointed; we were trying too hard and were tense.” We won the rest of our ties—5-2 against Chile; 5-3 against Venezuela; and 5-4 against Peru. Coach Li was encouraged by our hard work in a cooperative effort against Peru. “Brian was hurting but won all three. In the first tie, where Perry lost all three, when he was in trouble, he would give up. This time he didn’t, and his one win made a big difference.”
George’s ninth-match rally, however, was most prominent in the win. He’d lost his first two matches and now also the first game here in this climactic match. Coach Li said that before continuing “George came over to me and said the Peru player’s ball was bouncing high off the table while George’s loop was going long. The first thing I told him was not to worry about losing. ‘Relax,’ I told him. ‘Even if you lose, it doesn’t matter.’ Then I told him to close his blade, hit the top of the ball and move forward through the stroke instead of up. He won the next game and was up 20-15 in the third when he began to get tight. At 20-19, I said, “Don’t worry, loosen up.” And Brian hollered, ‘Yes, George, don’t worry—we’re all behind you.’ He got the final point and saved the tie for the U.S. team.
Regarding Masters’ gold medal win, Coach Li said, “Brian played very well. He has a very special style. He played calm and kept his concentration. He plays consistently at his top level. In the fourth game of the Singles final, he was down 19-16, but played very smart and won that game and the match. He uses both racket surfaces well. He can block or loop off either side. Next year when the two rubber surfaces must be different colors, he might have some difficulty. If he wants to be world-class, he must make his forehand attack stronger. If his forehand is stronger, he will win, even with the two-color racket.”
Coach Li’s Conclusions:
“Brazil and Canada were the superior teams, but all the other teams were evenly matched. The USA team could have done better than fifth [behind the 3rd-place Dominicans and 4th-place Jamaicans], but it’s doubtful if they were strong enough to finish first or second. Only Brian could win two or three matches; the others had to work hard to win one or two.
There are several important reasons why we lost [I also include here comments in brackets Coach Li told Sue Butler—SPIN, Oct., 1983, 27]:
Our team had little international experience. For example, when we lost the first few points of a match, or our players had a big lead, we would get nervous and panic. We knew little of the other players and their styles, and had difficulty adjusting.
We wanted to win too much. We had an unrealistic goal. We thought we would be #1 and instead of just playing each tie as it came and doing the best we could, we only saw that we were losing, and so we were worried and tense.
We have no systematic training program. For example, Canada, Brazil, Cuba, and Chile have training programs—their country’s players practice together all the time. Our players and coaches don’t know each other well and we don’t practice and train together. There is little empathy between coach and players.
Our technique needs much work: (a) we serve too long, and the serves have little variation [“—more speed and spin and better placement is needed”]; (b) our return of serve is weak—we push too much, don’t take the initiative, or miss the point outright.
Our players often miss chances to take the attack, to loop. We only loop off push. We don’t loop off flip or a very soft loop. This is especially true when we’re serving. This doesn’t mean NEVER push or use blocks. Use these things only to get into position for attack. [“To loop well you must have good footwork.”] If we desire to be world class, we MUST take the initiative FIRST. [“Generally, the American players’ loop is too weak. They take the ball too LATE and let the ball drop too FAR.” (Compare now what she told Brathwaite above.) “When you loop you must contact the ball at the TOP of its bounce. Don’t loop up but FORWARD. Pay attention to timing, hitting forward, and accelerating ‘through’ the ball. Use a quick arm motion as you contact the ball.”]
Sometimes we play too soft, sometimes too strong. When we attack we want to finish the point with one shot [“and so rush the play”]. When we play too soft, we only use defense to get the point. We must use defense to control the placement of shots and watch for an opportunity to immediately take the offense. Sometimes medium-force shots (60-80%) must be used to continue the offense. Some players always try to hit as hard as they can, but this can cause tightness and control problems.
We miss easy shots like with high balls. Many matches are close. If the easy shot had been made, the match would have been won, not lost. We can only loop one shot. We cannot loop continuously nor while moving.
Our players need a special serve that is exceptional. Our return of serve is generally weak because U.S. players generally have weak serves. We rarely get to practice against good serves. [“Too many players have difficulty reading spin.”]
If the U.S. wants to better itself in the world standing, the USTTA must have a systematic national training program. They must send their players, especially the young promising ones, with coaches, to international competitions. Let them see and play others so they know what to expect. Also, U.S. players need to study advanced techniques and tactics.
I was proud to coach the U.S. players and I’m confident they will continue to improve with proper training.”
Danny Seemiller’s Disappointment:
“I was very disappointed to learn that the U.S. Men’s Team finished fifth at the Pan American Games. As one of the two coaches originally selected to accompany our teams to Venezuela, it disturbed me that I wasn’t present at the competition. While I can’t say that the team would necessarily have done better if I had been there, I do know that I could have aided the effort.
The team was inexperienced in international competition, and since I have personally played against the Brazilian, Canadian, and Dominican teams, I felt I had much to offer in terms of advice and strategy. Unfortunately, a lack of communication kept me from making that trip.
I realize now that it was probably my fault as much as anyone else’s that I did not go. However, I still believe the burden of responsibility was with the USTTA since it was the Association that selected me. Had the people in power communicated with me during the five-month period previous to the Games, I’m certain we would have come to terms.
I would like to explain to the membership what happened, not because I’m bitter, but in order to avoid similar problems in the future.
Back in February, I was selected as the Coach. I received a phone call from Bill Haid who told me that to be the Pan Am Coach would be a big responsibility, as the Olympic Committee, who funds our squad, would like table tennis to win as many Gold medals as possible. He also informed me that I would have to set aside six weeks of my time to be the Coach.
As most of you know, I earn my living as a professional table tennis player and coach. I wrote to Bill in early March asking the exact dates I would be needed. I also requested a fee of $350 per week for my services.
Bill wrote back informing me of the dates: two one-week training camps, plus four weeks in Venezuela. He also told me he couldn’t authorize the payment as that was not his responsibility. However, he felt it would not be a problem.
I assumed the same thing, thinking that if there was a problem, someone would call or write me and we could work things out.
I planned my personal schedule allowing for those six weeks. This meant I would not accept any other coaching offers, exhibitions, or be able to play in any money tournaments during that time. I was really looking forward to working with Sean, Brian, Perry, Randy, and George. I thought they were a talented team in spite of their lack of international experience.
Sometime during the second week of July, USTTA Vice-President Pat O’Neill called to inform me that the Association was offering $200 a week instead of $350. He asked me if I would accept and I said No. I felt that the $350 was a fair offer and that I had requested that amount nearly five months ago. Here it was, three weeks before the competition. Pat said he would have to talk with Sol Schiff again and get back to me. [What about the two one-week training camps Danny was expected to attend? Surely, three weeks before the Team was to leave, at least one of these had been held? And, if so, Danny didn’t go to it? Didn’t ask to go to it? Wasn’t asked to go to it? And, if so, what does that say about his proposed contract?]
I never did receive that call from either of them. I feel like I’ve been unjustly removed as Coach, but what really bothers me is that after my contact with Haid in March no one ever called or wrote me.
Now here are additional comments I would like to make. I feel that I’m the most experienced player in the U.S., having competed in six World Championships. I don’t think $350 is out of line for my qualifications as Pan Am Coach. The Association spent thousands of dollars on the Pan Am squad, but wouldn’t pay me an additional $150 a week. Since I didn’t attend the two training camps in Colorado Springs, there was actually no increase in the total expenses.
Earning a living as a professional table tennis player is difficult enough as it is, and I don’t need it to be made more difficult. I hope the membership understands my complaint. I lost six weeks of possible income.”
*One player who probably would have been a professional, had he the opportunity, was Mexican National Kurt Wicker. He’s seen here in a 1981 Latin America Cup match, looping against the Cuban #1 Raul Betancourt. No way for him, though, in his time and place to make a living at table tennis.