Former World Champion Focuses on Developing Next Generations

By Richard Finn | Nov. 05, 2018, 11:19 a.m. (ET)

When you hear the name Stellan Bengtsson, most adult players will immediately recognize the 1971 World Table Tennis Champion from Sweden. Based in the US for many years and working on table tennis development with wife Angie, and the help of others, the legend Swede is finding success with dozens of youth in his California based club.

Opened in 2004 the Learning Tree Club is an After School program designed for Chinese children from kindergarten to 6th grade in the San Diego area at the 16-table and 10,000 square feet facility.

The three-hour weekday program offers children extra-curricular activities and classes such as dance, music, kung Fu, math, English, science and table tennis. The classes are separated into a block schedule of 45 minutes. The children are brought directly by club buses that pick them up at their schools.

The table tennis part of the curriculum has established itself as one of the premier such programs in the entire country offering a strong balance of recreational and tournament level coaching.

The program is under the leadership of the husband and wife team of 1971 Men’s World Champion and seven-time European champion Stellan Bengtsson and 10-time US National Champion and Hall of Famer Angelita Rosal Bengtsson. They also have the assistance of their son Samuel who's beginnings in the sport were at Falkenberg Table Tennis Club in Sweden.

Initially the club developed some top players, the likes of DJ Alto and other promising talents. At that time the more successful players were not US citizens and so the goal to create the future US National Champions and team players was not being realized. 

Stellan noted a turning point as promising players like Ted Li, Alexander Wu and Kayleigh Cui began to develop more. 

"Now the younger and newer players have role models to look up to and to follow," says Stellan. 

"We try and focus on developing more international styles of play with our promising players, that way when they reach a competitive level nationally, they are ready to take the next step to be more competitive at international levels."

Today, aside from it's rising talents, the club services 120 kids and young adults. Of the total enrollment 98 are junior players with most active tournament players.

The extensive staff also features experienced coaches Earl Alto and John Alto along with Coaches Dylan Chang, Jerome Vallar, Don James Alto and Mica Vlasic.

The elite portion of the program features several top USA and Canadian junior players – Ted Li, Alexander Wu, Kayleigh Cui and Crystal Liu.

Li is a member of the USA Cadet &Mini-Cadet team and won the U11 at the 2016 US Open and the U2250 at the 2017 US Nationals. He had a peak rating of 2379 and won the bronze medal for Mini-Cadets at the 2017 US Nationals.

Wu is a member of the USA Cadet Team and was rated as high as 2340. He was a finalist of Cadet Boys at 2018 US Nationals. Where he won the U2300 title.

Cui is a member of the USA Hopes Team and reached a high rating of 1947.

Liu is a member of the Canadian Case Team and had a peak rating of 1892.

Starting in 2015 the club started a partnership with the University of California San Diego (UCSD) table tennis team.

The team trains in the club three times a week, practicing with top junior players and coached by Earl and John Alto. The relationship has proven to be a winning one as the USCD team reached the 2018 NCTTA Nationals.

The partnership with the University echoes Stellan's sentiment of the difficulty in making progress between young ages and adult and making those big steps from being a promising junior player into having the tools to become a successful adult player. 

No doubt with the experience of a former World Champion leading the way there are many great successes awaiting for the players of the Learning Tree Club!