Table Tennis Took Angie Bengtsson Around The World, Letting Her Share Her Native Heritage
By Tony Gorman |
Nov. 29, 2020, 2:39 p.m. (ET)
Andrew Schneider (left) takes instruction from coach Angie Bengtsson (right) during the Adaptive Sports in Action event on Jan. 4, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Angelita Rosal Bengtsson went to her first U.S. Open Team Championships (USOTC’s) in Detroit at age 11. The experience was surreal for her; it was her first time on plane, and she got to play three straight days of nonstop table tennis.
“I was in heaven,” Bengtsson said. “I was on the plane ride home thinking, this is what I’m going to do. This is how I’m going to see the world.”
Bengtsson embarked on a Hall of Fame table tennis career around the globe. It also gave her the chance to share her Native American ancestry through her mother, a citizen of the Dakota Sioux nation. Native American Heritage Month has given her another opportunity to celebrate her culture, and she also began taking Dakota language classes in September.
“I always feel that we’re kind of a forgotten race,” Bengtsson said. “This was our country, and it was taken away from us because we were so trusting. We wanted to help everyone out. We didn’t want people to die and then people just turned on us. When they just talk about all these different races everywhere and we always feel like we’re always left out. So, I’m trying to rectify that.”
When she was coming up through the table tennis ranks, Bengtsson doesn’t remember other Native Americans in the sport other than her siblings, who got in the sport thanks to her father, Monico. She said he used the sport to keep an eye on them at night. He ended up being her coach throughout her career.
Born in San Francisco, she remembers what life was like growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood in San Diego. She said her family was called “savages” and their house was called “the reservation.” Every time someone was going to visit, they would say they were going to the “Rez.”
Her father and her mother, Kathryn, made sure that she and her siblings had a strong sense of their identity as Native Americans. Bengtsson still makes visits to her mother’s family at the Spirit Lake Reservation in North Dakota. Those experiences gave her the confidence she needed while she was playing table tennis.
“When I traveled, I felt like I was anyone else,” Bengtsson said. “I thought I could do what anyone else could do.”
I always feel that we’re kind of a forgotten race.
Angie Bengtsson, Table Tennis
Bengtsson took that confidence around the world. She went on to win her first title at the 1968 U.S. Open Under-13. She also won two U.S. Open U-15 titles in 1969 and 1970.
She competed for the USA World Table Tennis Team. She competed in the world championships in 1973, 1975, and 1977. She would win women’s doubles titles at the national championships from 1978 through 1980 and 1982. At the National Sports Festival, she claimed the women’s singles and mixed doubles titles in 1982.
She would eventually move to Sweden in the early 80s for training. There she met her future husband who was a champion in his own right, Stellen Bengtsson. Bengtsson became the first Swede to win a men’s singles world championship in 1971. He went on to win two more world titles to go along with seven European titles.
The couple lived back and forth between the US and Europe for ten years before Bengtsson decided to live in Sweden full-time. She and her husband began working together with junior groups. It was a lifestyle she never expected for herself.
“I never thought I was the kind of woman who could be like live with her husband, work with her husband, and go home with her husband and everything would be cool. But you know what, I hit the jackpot,” Bengtsson said. “This guy is the most awesome guy ever.”
Bengtsson said she saw the best table tennis in her life working at the training centers in Sweden. She retired from competition in 1985, three years before table tennis became an official Olympic sport. She had to itched to train for Seoul, but ultimately decided against it to spend more with her family.
“I was so tempted to kind of start flying back to the US and try to make the Olympic Team and kind of live in both places. But then, I really knew that I wanted to be with Stellan,” Bengtsson said. “And, so I really wanted to devote my time to him and our children and my new life in Sweden. It was a heartbreaker.”
After living in Sweden and Germany, the family returned to the US in 2006. While Bengtsson never became an Olympian, that didn’t stop her from being involved with Team USA and the Olympic and Paralympic Movement. She was named head coach of the U.S. Para Table Tennis Team for the 2015 Parapan American Games and 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
“I really felt I could help them become better players and be better sportsmen,” Bengtsson said.
Bengtsson was inducted into the USA Table Tennis Hall of Fame in 1996. But to her, her greatest accomplishment came in 1973 when she became the first woman inducted to the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. She was even more surprised to find out that another legend of Sioux ancestry nominated her for the honor. It was U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Famer Billy Mills, a member of the Oglala Lakota tribe and gold medalist in the 10,000-meter at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Today, Bengtsson and her husband reside in San Diego. They run an after-school program where they coach table tennis. The After School Learning Tree is located in Sorrento Valley in northern San Diego. One of her two sons, Sam, is one of the coaches.