Bhushan Looks Back on Olympic and Decorated National Champion Table Tennis Career

By Matt Hetherington | July 16, 2019, 10:05 p.m. (ET)

Just over a week ago in Las Vegas, Lily Zhang won her 5th National Women's Singles title, a big accomplishment, but one that pales yet in comparison to that of Insook Bhushan - an 11-time winner of that very title, with a total of 30 national titles in Women's Singles, Women's Doubles and Mixed Doubles across her career (11 Women's Doubles, 8 Mixed Doubles). Add to that 10 medals at the Pan American Games, 9 gold - 3 of those the penultimate singles championship titles.

Insook Bhushan is a name that many of the young rising talents in US table tennis probably would only recognize as a name repeated many times on the US National Championship Trophies, but to those from that era, they remember a truly world class player, opponent and teammate. 

Bhushan originally came from South Korea, where she was part of a team which won both bronze and gold at the World Table Tennis Championships. When her father got a job in the USA, Insook moved with her family in May of 1974. 

Upon arriving she says she had no intention of continuing to play table tennis, but was eager to go to college and so used table tennis as a means to meet people and practice English, she moved to Columbus, Ohio in early 1975 and played at DJ's Club. 

Tim Boggan described her game in her USATT Hall of Fame Profile:

"Insook showed the remarkable poise that anyone watching her for the next two decades would have to admire. And what a game she had--she varied the spin so beautifully, and, to complement her near impregnable defense, she flashed those pick-hits from either side."

It was a game which led her to win the 1977 US Closed Women's Singles title and, one of her career highlights the 1977 US Open title. 

Along with meeting husband Shekhar through table tennis, she recalls the 1977 US Open win as one of her fondest memories in table tennis. 

Bhushan was a member of the US women's team and was ranked as high as #23 in the world after the 1979 World Championships in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Insook retired and had her first of two sons, Austin, in 1980, but returned to table tennis to win her 3rd US National Championship in 1981. She would win 11 titles in total, her last one in 1991. 

Insook acknowledges that while her career was at its peak in 1977 when she won the US Open, she was still very glad to compete at the Olympic Games in 1988 in her home country of South Korea, and also in 1992 in Barcelona.

"I was very excited but nervous to compete at an Olympics in my home country. Before the Olympic Games, Diana Gee and Sean O’Neil and I went to China to train for 3 weeks. I also practiced at the Olympic Junior training center in Colorado Springs a couple of times a week during that year but it was not easy to compete against players who train daily year after year." - Insook Bhushan on her feelings of competing in the 1988 Olympic Games. 

It was after the Barcelona Games in 1992 that Insook retired from table tennis at the age of 40.

"It was time for me to retire and start a new career, so I was ready," says Insook, " I worked for the State Government for 25 years and raised 2 boys. I didn't really go and play table tennis after that, but I did go and watch either the US Nationals or US Open each year."

Looking back on a success-filled career, she notes some of her tough opposition over the years.

"We have a lot more Chinese players competing now than there were in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s been a long time ago so I don’t remember clearly but I had to play hard to win against Wei Wang," she recalls.

When asked about her biggest competition it's DJ Lee's wife He Ja Lee, herself also a 3-time US National Champion. 

"I have to say He Ja Lee. She beat me at our first US Closed which was held at Caesars in 1976. For my defense, I should have boycotted and not played since it was held on a carpeted floor but I was not experienced in that area so I didn’t know better."

It is no secret at all that Insook Bhushan was a world class player and, remains to this day, the most decorated winner of US National titles on record. She has set a high bar to match for any aspiring upcoming US players, but had this simple advice to pass down: 

"In Asia, schools have table tennis clubs where there is a coach and similar age students practicing every day - 5 days a week, year after year. There are no shortcuts if you want to reach the world level of table tennis."