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NYC pingpong club proudly following its Olympian

Aug. 17, 2008, 2:20 p.m. (ET)

NEW YORK (AP) On one wall, a pingpong paddle signed by John McEnroe is inscribed, "Thanks for kicking my ..." Across the room, a cabinet is filled with trophies and photos. Behind the reception desk, colorful foil letters spell out, "Well done Chen."

Wang Chen is in Beijing, playing for the United States in the Olympics, and hasn't been home in New York much lately. But her spirit, her image and the players she has coached fill every corner of the table tennis club named for her on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"Every time we play a match, she always kills me," said Paul David, a high-ranked Guyanese player who was managing the club Thursday night, handing out paddles and collecting the $8-an-hour fee for table time.

By all accounts Wang, who gives $40-an-hour lessons at the club when she's not tied up with international competition, is an intense but well-liked coach.

"She has a lot of good moves that she can show you," said Emile Goldstein, 16, a top junior player from Manhattan who went to China this summer for pingpong school. "She'd beat me 11-3 every game if she wanted to, so she's not playing seriously when she plays me, but she makes sure I play seriously. If you fool around, she will not coach you."

Goldstein and another promising junior player, 17-year-old Scott Lorty of Philadelphia, watched on television as Wang beat a Nigerian to help the United States women's team move into the bronze-medal round. The U.S. squad was eliminated from the medal race Saturday with a loss to South Korea; the women's singles competition begins Monday.

Like all the other American pingpong Olympians, Wang, now 34, was born in China. She was admitted to that country's table tennis academy when she was 9, which meant eight hours of practice a day. She was on the national team for 10 years and was the fourth-ranked player in the world from 1994 to 1998, but was passed over for the 1996 and 2000 Chinese Olympic teams.

She retired from table tennis - or thought she did - and came to America "because my sister lived in New Jersey, and after I retired, she wanted me to go be with her," she said.

Wang kept up her pingpong and eventually discovered Jerry Wartski, a Holocaust survivor, real estate developer and table tennis fan who had a table tennis club in Manhattan.

She coached Wartski, among others, and when he moved the club into new quarters on West 100th Street, he named it Wang Chen's and made her co-manager. His sponsorship, and the encouragement of others at the club, enabled her to continue competing around the world and train for the Beijing Olympics - as an American.

She became a citizen in 2006, advanced to the final eight in last year's world championships and automatically qualified for the U.S. Olympic team because of her still-high world ranking - No. 20.

Wartski, now 77, went to Beijing this month and watches the table tennis every day, Wang said. "In our game against the Netherlands, he was so nervous he said he couldn't watch and had to watch games on the other tables, not my game," she said.

Her success is helping to attract players - old and young, experienced and raw - to her club.

"Some people come once, and some come regularly," she said. "There's too many, but there are three other coaches there to help out."

There's only one other table tennis club in Manhattan - it's in Chinatown - but Wang said the game's popularity is growing in a city where few have room for a pingpong table.

"There's competitions every week, and lots of coaches come to New York to teach," she said. "Even middle and elementary school students are learning pingpong with us because they don't have it at school."

At the club on Thursday, 6-year-old Clara Neubauer and 8-year-old brother Oliver spent more than an hour getting lessons from Lauren Zhu, a 16-year-old who left China with her parents several years ago after being a teammate of Wang's.

As the children gently tapped the white and orange pingpong balls over the net, two advanced players went at it furiously at the next table, the ball moving almost too fast for the untrained eye.

"This is one of those tucked-away New York treasures," said Kerry McDermott, the children's mother and a violinist with the New York Philharmonic. "The kids like to play, so I brought them over for lessons, and they love it. When we heard about Wang Chen and the Olympics, we hurried and got a membership. I thought, 'What if she wins? We'll never be able to get in.'"

Wang says the club "is really important to me because I've met a lot of friends through it, and it's part of my life. In the club, I feel really comfortable - it's just like being in my own home."

In the midst of Olympic competition, she's eager to return to New York, the club and her husband, Forrest Zhou, a doctoral student.

"I hope I can do well here and get home as soon as possible," she said. "This is my last time competing. I'm retiring after this. And then I'm going to get ready to have babies and have a normal woman's life."


Associated Press Writer Anita Chang contributed to this report from Beijing.