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Bowen Chen: Mr. Athlete

By Larry Hodges | July 24, 2015, 3:30 a.m. (ET)

Bowen Chen

Bowen Chen: Mr. Athlete

By Larry Hodges 

Recently, during a training camp at the Maryland Table Tennis Center, a group of players had an impromptu standing long jump contest. There were some impressive leaps; after all, these were mostly players from a sport where the legs are of great importance. I even joined in, and did a few credible leaps. And then Bowen walked up and jumped. He left everyone in the dust by about two feet.  

Did I mention that he runs every day (usually about 20 minutes), lift weights five times a week, has been doing footwork drills since he was eight, and has legs like tree trunks? It all adds up to a 2600+ rating (until a disastrous US Open recently), five MDTTC Open Championships, and numerous other titles, all at the age of just-turned-17 in June.  

Bowen's dad was a player, and got him started when he was eight at the Shandong club, which is near Beijing. He soon idolized the world #1, Wang Hao, which is why he chose to be a penholder. His first three years he mostly played for fun. He became very serious when he was eleven, the year Wang Hao became world men's singles champion. Table tennis was a perfect sport for him because he was always energetic as a kid, and so became a very energetic player, always moving. He had three main coaches at the Shandong club: Zhang Chuan Ming (Zhang Jike's father), Xu Xiang Dong, and Chen Yong.

At age 12 he essentially became a full-time player. He went to school only half-time, about three hours a day, and spent the rest of this time training. By the time he was 14 in 2012 he was on the Guang Xi Province Junior Team, playing at about a 2500 level, and working with head coach Xie Saike (the lefty pips-out penhold Chinese superstar of the early 1980s - 1981 world mixed doubles champion, 1982 Asian Games Men's Singles and Mixed Doubles Champion, as well as the 1981 US Open Men's Singles Champion).  

And that's when "the offer" came in. Coaches Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang from MDTTC were looking for practice partner/coaches to come to MDTTC, and they knew Chen Yong, Bowen's former coach. The contacted him, and Bowen was asked if he was interested. He jumped at the chance. Other than a tournament in Indonesia in 2011, he'd never left China. 

"I was curious about the U.S.," he said. And so his American journey began. His Chinese name is Chen Bo Wen, but when he first arrived at MDTTC in 2012 the kids at the club quickly christened him "Bowen." He spoke little English at the start, but has been taking English classes continuously for three years now, both ESL and English classes at Montgomery College. His English is now both clear and fluent. He shares a house with fellow coaches Zeng Xun ("Jeffrey"), Wang Qing Liang ("Leon"), and local player and part-time coach Josh Tran. He travels nearly everywhere by bus and bike - the latter another reason for those huge legs.  

He quickly got accustomed to his U.S. coaching duties: 40 hours of coaching per week (50 hours during the summer, often doing 9-10 hours/day), in addition to his own training, physical training, and English classes. He coaches six days a week, with Mondays off. Finding time to train, he said, is difficult with this schedule, but he manages to find time, especially when there is a tournament coming up. While many practice partners/coaches go down in rating, Bowen has improved from 2500 to 2600 level in his three years in the U.S. Of course, much of his time is spent as a practice partner for top MDTTC juniors and players, so he gets pretty good practice with them - Crystal Wang, Nathan Hsu, Derek Nie, Klaus Wood, Han Xiao, and others, including sometimes his fellow coaches. 

He's a two-winged looper, with a reverse penhold backhand. "When I was in China, I was more two-winged, like Wang Hao," he said. "After I came to the U.S. I increased my physical training, and now I play more forehand." He's known for his good serves, fast footwork, and sheer power, but also has very good off-table fishing and lobbing. He's sort of a righty Xu Xin. 

He said he hopes to reach a 2700 rating and top three in the U.S. When I questioned him on that, he meant top three of all players living in the U.S. - for among U.S. citizens there are, as of this writing, zero U.S. citizens rated over 2600 who played in the recent USA Nationals, with about 20 non-citizens over 2600, six of them over 2700. He said he will try his best to reach this goal – not an easy task considering his time constraints. 

When he's not playing table tennis he likes playing basketball and pool. He also likes to listen to music, mostly Chinese songs ("anything good"), and rock music. He likes spicy Chinese food, steaks, and anything barbecued. But he spends most of his waking hours at the club, coaching and practicing. The result? Besides the huge legs, here's a short listing of his titles:

  • 2015 Cary Cup Division A Semifinalist
  • 2013 Eastern Open Finalist
  • 2013 Junior Olympics Under 16 Boys' Singles Finalist
  • 2013 US Open Under 21 Men's Singles Quarterfinalist
  • 2012 Badger Open Semifinalist, Doubles Champion, and Under 18 Champion
  • 2012 US Open Cadet Boys' Singles Finalist and Men's Singles Round of 16
  • 2012 US Club Championships Finalist
  • 2011 KASIH BANGSA International Championships (Indonesia) – Junior Runner-up
  • Five-time MDTTC Open Champion (including last three in a row)
  • Three-time Potomac Open Finalist and three-time Semifinalist 

What does the future hold for Bowen? US Citizenship, perhaps? "I'm not thinking that far ahead right now," he said. For now, he's focused on his coaching, improving his level, and perfecting his English. Not a bad trio for someone his age.