38-Day Countdown to Change in the ITTF's Presidency

By Sheri Cioroslan | July 25, 2014, 5 p.m. (ET)

Day 38, July 25 - Sean O’Neill Looks to Collaborate with National Associations

“I believe asking the entire table tennis family for assistance in this area, P5, is genius.”  

Since May 24, the Countdown has been running simultaneously on ittf.com and usatt.org.  Yesterday the Countdown visited with Ian Marshall, the ITTF’s Publication Editor who has been posting the series daily.  Sean O’Neill has performed the same service for USATT.  Today Sean discusses his own history in the sport, including his appreciation of the progress made in the sport over the past 15 years. 

First I want to thank you for all of your cooperation in posting the entire Countdown series at usatt.org.  In your case, let’s start with your current role at USATT and work backwards a little bit before we return to the present.  What are your present roles and responsibilities with USA Table Tennis?

Sheri, thank you very much for including me in the Countdown.

In December at the US National Championships the USATT Board of Directors elevated my position from Webmaster and Social Media Coordinator to Director of Communications.  My primary responsibilities include: working with the media and press, maintaining our web presence and helping with our web streaming efforts.  I also currently sit on the USATT High Performance Committee and the USATT Hall of Fame Committee. 

Many of my ITTF friends think of me as a former coach of the US Para Team and a couple might still remember me as a player on the US National Team.  

What feedback have you received about the Countdown and what are your thoughts about it?

USA Table Tennis fans and members love reading about the people behind the scenes and their involvement in the sport. I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about ITTF affairs, both from a player/coach and National Governing Body perspective, but I would be the first to say I have learned a tremendous amount of information from the Countdown!   I really like the balance of players, officials, volunteers and coaches you have chosen so far. 

Many people might be surprised that we first met more than even a few decades ago when you were training for most of the summer at Disney’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  [See Day 76.]  You were quite young, yet you seemed to know already that you wanted to pursue a life in the sport.  Can you address that era in your life?

I was very fortunate to have had high-level coaching when I started the sport.  My father Patrick was my first coach and shortly thereafter I met three very special players from Thailand.  Charlie Wuvanich, Chuchai Chan and Apichart Sears took me under their wings in Minneapolis and taught me how to think and play like a professional player from an early age.  I developed an early rivalry with Scott Butler which helped me immensely during my formative years.

Scott Butler and Sean O'Neill 

Later on, you became a national champion and an Olympian.  At the US Open in 1990, I remember we had a phenomenal conversation while we were sitting next to each other watching the Women’s Final.  Later, we decided to attempt to re-create the discussion points in a taped conversation, that as I recall was 30 pages transcribed!  It’s interesting because we both went on to pursue much greater involvement in TT.  Can you tell us what path you took?

After working closely with the Thais, and later Monty Merchant of India, the biggest step I took in the sport was to join the Angby Sport Club in Stockholm to continue my junior development.  I owe so much to Nisse Sandberg and the Mattsson family for letting me spend 6-8 weeks each winter as a member of their families.  In addition to my early coaches, I also had the tremendous support of both Butterfly and STIGA as equipment sponsors.

Nisse and Sean

Looking back on my playing career, I was very fortunate to have participated in multiple World Championships, Pan-Am Games, World Cups and Olympic Games for the United States.  Watching the recent ITTF Legends Tour brings back so many strong memories.  The funny thing is half of the players (Jean –Philippe Gatien, Jean-Michel Saive, and Jiang Jialiang) were in my 1988 Olympic round robin group!

Upon retiring from full-time play in 1996, I completed my college studies with a degree in Management Information Systems.  Then I started doing more TV commentary and became an editor for an early table tennis portal (about.com).  I served on the USOC’s Athletes’ Advisory Committee for a number of terms in addition to the USATT Board of Directors before starting my coaching career.  I was our National Cadet Boys coach and then jumped over to the Para side working closely with the US Olympic Committee. Leading the Para team in Athens, Beijing and London was a major honor and always exciting as our players were always fighting for medals.

As mentioned previously, the most recent path in the sport led to my becoming USATT’s Director of Communications. 

Recently Steve Dainton talked about the importance of RELEVANCE when it comes to media platforms.  What topics are you finding the readers are connecting to most?

The US is a very different table tennis market than the rest of the world, as everyone knows.  Our gargantuan (800+ player) US Opens, our 15 million plus recreational players and our celebrities have really added a ton of excitement to the sport domestically.  

In regards to Steve’s belief that the ITTF’s WTTC’s should resemble FIFA’s World Cup in terms of qualification, I totally agree.  I have stated many times the US Open & US Nationals should follow the same qualifying structure to increase stature and reach. 

Speaking of table tennis in the US what do you see trending?

I believe the efforts of Susan Sarandon and Spin Galactic have really helped with making table tennis cool and hip. 

Table Tennis is now in the New York Public School system as a varsity sport.  

And we are seeing performers like Frank Caliendo, Judah Friedlander and Peter Gabriel show that table tennis is very addictive.  And we are adding more famous players all the time.

We see a number of USATT Centers of Excellence growing to help create our future champions. TMS has begun to partner with our National Collegiate Table Tennis Association, which is in a league of its own.

One of my mentors, Tim Boggan continues to chronicle the History of US Table Tennis and I am happy to see former teammates like Jim Butler dust off his racket and give the young guns a run for their money. 

Also, Ariel Hsing is playing in the Chinese Super league for Jinhua Bank. 

I know that you and the USATT Magazine Editor, Steve Hopkins, have some requests with regards to the extended table tennis family.  This seems to be a good forum and a good opportunity to make those requests.  Go ahead!

Steve and I would love to partner with the various ITTF national associations to share their events, players and stories with our readers and fans.  Creating more name recognition, and building stronger rapport with the public will be the foundation to grow the sport worldwide.  If you have an interest please contact me at sean@usatt.org and we will make it happen!     

What are your ideas to help TT achieve TOP 5 IN ALL WE DO?

I believe asking the entire table tennis family for assistance in this area is genius.  I personally submitted a demonstrated worldwide ratings system for both pros and amateurs to the ITTF the first day the P5 applications were open.  Having the ITTF promote and administer an international rating system for all levels of play seems like such a doable and valuable goal and it plays perfectly with P5.

On the other end of the spectrum regarding fair play, I have one other concern that is developing.  In the United States, we have a number of Chinese-born players that have admitted to having their official documents altered locally to allow them to be more competitive in age divisions in their homeland.  This normally wouldn’t be an issue, but with the rise of outstanding ITTF Junior and Cadet Tournaments, I see this item needing real attention from Chinese coaches and clubs if we want to guarantee a level playing field for our kids internationally. I know CTTA is well aware of the issue and is working hard to correct it, but often it is beyond their control since it is occurring at the local level. 

Finally, could your share your point of view about the progress made during Adham Sharara’s presidency?

Adham and I have a long history, as he coached many of my opponents from Canada during my playing career.  Additionally we have negotiated Olympic Trials for North America on multiple occasions.  I can say without hesitation that I have strongly supported all of the major proposals that have occurred during his tenure as President. 

The ITTF is so different than it was in 1983 when I played in my first international event.  The professionalism, excitement, expansion and key initiatives that have occurred are all thanks to Adham’s leadership and vision.  One aspect of Adham’s character that I have always appreciated is his availability and openness to communication.  Every email I have ever sent was responded to in a timely, thoughtful and courteous manner.   

Before I end, I do want to thank two very special ITTF contributors that you have featured already: Mikael Andersson [Day 67] and Raul Calin [Day 61].  Both of these individuals have greatly helped USA Table Tennis, especially our juniors and para players and I am very appreciative and grateful.  

And Sheri, after you finish with the ITTF Countdown, maybe you can do a similar project for USATT! 

Thanks, Sean.  On a personal note, it’s a coincidence that you would close by saying that because my mom, whose birthday I commemorate today, would often take table tennis magazines with her to the hospital some 21 years ago.  She loved to read the profiles, interviews, and articles I submitted to USATT.  And, during the Countdown, I remember how motivating her encouragement was.  As for the future, let’s keep the options open!
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