LISA GEE

Profile by Tim Boggan, USATT Historian

            “The doctors didn’t know Betty was expecting twins,” said Yim Gee, Lisa’s father. (Lisa is the elder sister by one minute.) “And,” he continued, “like the first baby, Diana, too, was in good health. So we thanked God for that. But I went into shock—half my face was paralyzed for eight weeks.” (He ain’t lookin’ grim tonight, right?)

            Many youngsters who become top-flight players have fathers who start them off. So it was with Yim Gee. But, he says, “My wife, Betty, and the girls could testify that I was more of a slave driver than coach. It got to the point where the girls began to rebel and didn’t want to play anymore. That was when my friend and table tennis enthusiast Greg Sawin came into their lives and made the game fun to play. He’d written a book called Thinking and Living Skills. In his coaching he’d put his psychology degree to work: used lots of encouraging words in his instructions; and spiced up the training with funny movements and tricky serves to make the girls laugh. Their relationship lasted a lifetime.  In his apartment, which I’ve visited, you could see my daughters were the pin-up girls on the walls. You could see their photos in competition and in different times of their lives all over the place.”

            The ten-year-old twins came all the way from California to Long Island to play in the 1979 U.S. Open. And this must have put the right vibes into their head ‘cause they experienced center court and the attention of hundreds! Uh-huh—they were “Ball Girls” for the Men’s final between Danny Seemiller and Attila Malek. We see one of the girls at her job in this climactic photo.

Obviously the Gee family was serious about their kids getting good. “Fourth graders Diana and Lisa use combination bats with pips-out sponge on one side and inverted on the other. They practice three times a week with daily exercises, including calisthenics, weight-lifting, push-ups, and skip-roping. The practices consist of serve and receive, push, chop, hit, footwork, and game playing.

But kids they were: each girl always carried her teddy bear to whatever tournaments they went to.

Lisa would later say, “When we were young, I beat Diana, then she started beating me. At the 1979 Closed, Lisa won the 13’s from Diana, then at the 1980 U.S. Open she beat her in both the U-11’s and 13’s (though in the 13 event the tide was already turning for, down 2-1 and at 22-all in the 4th, Lisa could easily have lost that match). In 1981, though Diana had become the slightly stronger player of the two, it was almost as if their match-scores were twins: Diana wins the 13’s over Lisa in 5 (after being down 2-0) and the 15’s in 5 (after being down 2-1).

In 1981, Vietnam emigrant Lan Vuong comes of age. In the Closed Girls U-17, Lan beats Lisa (which would continue to be a given), then downs Diana. But in the 15’s, Diana defeats Lan. The back and forth rivalry between these penhold and shakehand Hall of Famers Diana and Lan would continue throughout their careers.

Meanwhile, almost every year, the Gee sisters would win the U.S. Open/U.S. Closed U-13/U-15/U-17 Girls Doubles. Initially, Oklahomans Marilyn Johnston and Karin Thompson edged them out, then quickly edged themselves out of contention. Thereafter the twins were repeatedly challenged by Easterners Jasmine Wang and hard-hitting Vicky Wong who were both good enough eventually to make U.S. Teams and be accepted at the Resident Training Program at Colorado Springs.

            Of course both Diana and Lisa began achieving success as young adults. At the 1981 Sports Festival, Lisa won the Women’s Doubles with Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost. But the Women’s Singles matches she played were more dramatic. Lisa beat Takako Trenholme, another penholder, and a future U.S. World Team member, 19 in the third. By my count, the players and the umpire lost the score at least five times and didn’t change ends in the third until 12-9. Up 20-18 double match-point, Lisa decided it was the right time to tie her shoelaces, and, as if that weren’t enough for Takako, a photographer suddenly came up and was waiting distractingly at the barriers for play to begin so he could get a good action shot. Also, it didn’t help Takako that when she plays the Gee twins, she says she feels, well, not exactly motherly, but thinks of her own kids, one of whom was about the same age as the Gees. It didn’t help Takako either that she was thinking more about her upcoming match with Alice Green than her one with Lisa. “Gee, she said, “I forgot to look at my notes on Lisa.” She keeps a little black notebook on all her opponents. Father Gee goes around not with just a notebook but a big black loose-leaf binder, which I think it’s safe to say he did not forget to look at.

            In the Lisa-Hanna Butler match that would decide who’d get to the quarter’s, Hanna, up 18-12 in the first, was clearly so distracted by the incompetent umpire’s mistakes, she suddenly just couldn’t play at all—ended  by first serving into the net at 19-all, then served off at 19-20! Wow! What must Lisa have thought of that strange happening. Hanna did get herself together, but Lisa played well in the clutch and took the second game and the match 24-22. In the quarter’s, before losing to Cheryl Dadian, Lisa downed 27-year-old Olga Soltesz. “When you’re a nice little junior,” said Olga, as if looking at Lisa, “everybody tries to help you. But when you grow up, nobody cares about you anymore.”

Yim Gee of course had advice to give his daughters—here he’s instructing Diana—but, not being crazy, he also valued advice from U.S. National Coaches Liguo Ai and his wife Li Henan Ai. When Yim invited Liguo to be a guest at his home, everyone got along just fine.

At the 1982 U.S. Closed, in the Women’s Team Trials, five players finished 4th through 8th, with 6-5 records. One of those was Lisa, who beat Diana 19 in the 5th. I’m reminded of a fall, 1979 match the sisters played in California when they were learning how to play. At the end of the match, won by Lisa, Diana stomped her foot in protest and complained to her father, “Lisa didn’t loop!” They’d been taught to loop recently and were supposed to use it in competition. Lisa looked straight into her sister’s eyes and said, “I wanted to win!” She still does.

Ironically, in view of this story, Lisa became a looper and Diana a fast-attack hitter. But Diana’s foot-stomping attitude seemed to continue. She admitted, “I get very made sometimes when I’m not playing my best and I get frustrated easily when I’m not doing well. But I’m trying to relax more and just play my game.” Said one observer of the sisters’ play, “With Diana the points are generally over with quickly. Lisa by temperament is the calmer of the two, more patient, more conservative, less prone to be upset. ‘Lisa,’ her coaches once said to her, ‘you are too nice.’”

            Maybe. But again and again, win or lose, she’s a fighter, ferociously in there mixing it up.

            No better example of this can be shown than at the 1984 Cuban Invitational in Santa Clara, in the final of the Women’s Teams. When her teammate Lan Vuong lost the fourth match to Cuba’s Oliva, 24-22 in the 3rd, Lisa had to play Yolanda Rodriguez for the Gold. Here’s Sylvia Rosenthal’s coverage:

            “In the first game, Rodriguez attacked everything—low, high, medium, whatever—she killed everything. Easy 21-14 win for Cuba.

            Since Lisa was unable to use her own racket—it had been stolen soon after her arrival —and was now playing with horribly blistered hands, we thought it was all over when she was down 20-16 quadruple match-point in the second. But Lisa came out with two heavy-chop serves and the Cuban pushed them both into the net: 20-18 and suddenly the Americans were all screaming in excitement. Hope had come back into the game—and stayed there. For now Lisa tied it up with two powerful well-placed loops. Then at 21-all, Lisa continued to come through for us—two more loop winners. Unbelievable! Incredible! Now we had a chance for the Gold!

            But Rodriguez before her home crowd wasn’t about to collapse. In the third, it was 16-all. Then Lisa in front by two…no, by one, as the Cuban scored with a heavy Phantom chop. Up 18-17, Lisa served, Rodriguez returned well, and Lisa pushed up the middle, and the Cuban all-out smashed it in for what looked like a sure winner. But, wait, Lisa’s racket came from out of nowhere and, with her back to the table, she somehow counter-returned the kill for the point! The Cubans were amazed, the Americans in a frenzy. Then 20-17 Lisa. But after Lisa took the right ending-shot but missed, the stadium was in an uproar. And Rodriguez fed off the crowd. Showing great intensity and concentration, she smashed in a winner—20-19. But Lisa showed her poise and experience, and to a you-could-hear-a-pin-drop, dead-silent stadium, Rodriguez mis-played the gold-medal point!”

            1984—30 years ago—that was a very memorable year for Lisa. Although she finished 6th in the World Team Tryouts, and only four women would make up the U.S. Team to Gothenburg, Sweden, it turned out that Julie Ou, that year’s Women’s Champion, hadn’t been in the country long enough to be eligible to play for the U.S. So that left Kasia Dawidowicz, who’d finished fifth in the standings over Lisa who’d finished sixth as the #4 woman for the Team. Except that the Selection Committee saw the players as even in skill, were impressed that the youthful Lisa had just won two National titles—the Women’s Doubles (with Diana over Kasia and Cheryl) and the Mixed with Quang Do (aka Richard Doverman) over Brian Masters and Diana. More importantly, they didn’t think, with good reason, that Kasia had been a cooperative Team member in the recent past. They voted 5-1 for Lisa. But of course, with good reason, Dawidowicz contested (the USOC favored strict Trial by Combat standings). It was the USTTA’s 9-member Executive Committee’s responsibility to make the final decision, and I as the President required each member to put into writing (though remaining anonymous) why he was voting for who. The vote came 4-4 to me, and, with mixed feelings, I broke the tie in favor of Lisa.   

            Lisa made her 1985 Gothenburg debut in the Women’s Teams event where, paired with Lan, she won doubles matches against New Zealand and Australia, and had a singles win against Susanne Pedersen of Denmark, for which she received a strong round of applause from the U.S. spectators.

Back home at the National Sports Festival, she was a member of the winning Women’s Team, as she would be again in 1987, and was a finalist to Diana in the Singles.

            Oh, oh—Aug., 1985: time for the Gee parents to experience something of a trauma—their daughters entered the USTTA’s live-in Resident Training Program.

Yim would later say, “The most difficult moment for me and my family was saying goodbye to our daughters at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. That was the first time we were ever apart from each other as a family for a long time. My wife and I heard their farewell cries long after we returned home. We missed them very much, especially during the Thanksgiving holidays.”

            Missed them so much that Yim and Betty couldn’t resist writing an Open Letter that’d be printed in the Association‘s National Magazine. It’s an encomium to their daughters and representative of every parents’ wish for their children’s success. In part it reads: “We are so proud that you are our daughters. We are so proud that you are beautiful girls. We are so proud that you are each loving persons full of vitality, dreams, and accomplishments….

            …Being away from home will help you each to become the kind of person you want to be; an individual who knows and seeks what she wants; a person who can get along with herself and others; an individual who can think independently and take care of herself, a person who values friendship, love, happiness, competition, education, and a career.”

            And, bless them, the twins do seem to have gotten along fine together.

What was their everyday life like at the RTP Center? Snapshot this: up at 6:45, then out to the track. At 8 a.m. the downtown bus that goes by their Palmer High School stops in front of the Training Center. Home from school at 3:00 p.m., a quick bite to eat, and then in the Training Gym from 4 p.m. till 7 p.m., followed by some social time. Curfew at 11:00.

            In matches they’d played over the years, Lisa had consistently lost to Lan Vuong. But at the ’86 Closed, in the Women’s semi’s, she’d struggled into the fifth with her…only to seem to succumb to routine defeat. Then, down 14-9, surprise, Lisa made 9 straight points, attacking everything in sight, to eventually lead 20-15…16…17…18…then finally get the point she needed for the highest finish she or any other player during Insook’s reign could possibly attain. Here Insook takes her invariable podium prize-winning position.

At the 1986 Closed, Lisa didn’t win a title. But she was a formidable challenger. She lost her Women’s Singles semifinal to Insook, and lost her two Doubles finals—the Women’s with Li Ai to perennial Champions Insook and Diana; and the Mixed with Chartchai Teekaveerakit to 1985-86-87 Champions Sean and Diana, 19 in the 5th, a loss that would be followed the next year by another stinger, 22-20, 28-26 at the North American Championships. Perhaps the argument can be made that Lisa was a better doubles than singles player? Later, at the U.S. Closed in 1989, she’ll close her career with two runner-up finishes in the Doubles—in the Women’s (with Lan) and the Mixed (with Jim Butler).

In 1987, after the twins and 15 other young players representing the U.S. return from a Sheila O’Dougherty-led learning trip to China—that’s the Gees in the front row next to a centered Sheila—Diana qualifies for the ’88 Olympics, Lisa doesn’t. Of course Lisa was happy for her sister—on the Team Profiles the USTTA had put out, in answer to the Question, “What athlete do you most admire?” Lisa had answered, “Diana Gee.” 

U.S. National Coach Li Henan Ai commiserates with Lisa, who in the final Olympic Trials lost a particularly disappointing 23-21match in the third to Canada’s Gloria Hsu: “You practice very hard, Lisa, you tried very hard at the Trials. You lost two very close matches. You tried your best. Don’t feel bad.”

“Well, it’s a letdown for me,” said Lisa. “But it’s not the end of my life.”

Diana said, “Lisa had already decided to go to school even before the Trials. She’d said, “I want to do something else besides play table tennis.” She plans to study fashion merchandizing.

School was beckoning for Lisa, but at the 1987 Closed, her heart was still into playing. She lost her Singles semifinal to fast-rising junior star Li Ai, but, partnered as she often was by Lan, she reached the Women’s Doubles final, and scored a Singles success by taking the Women’s Amateur from Carol Davidson.

In January, 1988, Lisa started classes at the University of California in Berkeley. “My parents don’t favor me because I made the Olympics,’ said Diana. “They treat us fairly because they think school is just as important as table tennis.” In fact, Father Yim called Lisa, “The Academic Olympian.”

But not exclusively academic. In 1988 she was playing in the U.S. Intercollegiate’s. In the final, against a defensive-minded Rong Li, newly arrived from China, Lisa, attacking regularly but prudently, led 1-0 and 19-10…. But, as we all know, strange things can happen. Mixing in a healthy number of unexpected pick-hits with an increasingly accurate defense, Li shocked the audience and her opponent by winning nine straight points to tie it at 19-all, then went on, though Gee was pressing the attack, to win the game.

No surprise Lisa lost the third badly. But back came her competitive drive and from 9-all in the 4th she won seven straight to go up 16-9. Strange how matches go. Rong retaliated with six straight, then lost three out of four to go down 19-16. But then—such streaky play—Gee dropped four straight, survived an ad-down point, but eventually lost this match that once seemed to have been hers for the taking.

            It wasn’t easy for Lisa, always so competitive, to finally retire from tournament play. As you can see, she’s resisted it.

            Recall how when Lisa left for Berkeley Diana had said, “This will be the first time in my life that I will be away from my sister. We cried our heads off before we parted. I’ll be sad because we really love each other.” Lisa agrees: “I know I’ll miss Diana a lot. She’s always been there, someone to talk to, someone to bother. I’ll call. I’ll write letters, but it won’t be the same.”

            Well, no, and a quarter of a century later, things aren’t exactly the same either. And yet tonight the Gees are obviously still a family in which all care a great deal about one another. So let’s complete their happy reunion. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Lisa Gee-Soto into our honored Hall.

Lisa Gee Photo Sequence

#1: Meet the Gees

#2: Gees’ longtime friend Greg Sawin flanked by 30-year-olds Diana and Lisa

#3: Gee sisters on center-court at the ready

#4: Lisa about to smack in a winner

#5: Well-matched twins Lisa and Diana

#6: Sisters look warily at Lan Vuong competition

#7: Arch-rivals Lan and Diana

#8: Gee twins best in Girls’ Doubles

#9: Hall of Famer Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost

#10: A not exactly motherly Takako Trenholme

#11: Lisa vs. Hanna Butler: new umpire needed

#12: Olga: maybe she didn’t want to grow up?

#13: Father knows best?

#14: Ai Liguo: Imagine if I’d started coaching you in China

#15: Win or lose, young un’s want to play

#16: Julia Au: eligible to be ’94 National Champion but not a ’95 World Team member

#17: Kasia Dawidowicz/Cheryl Dadian, ‘84 U.S. Women’s Doubles runner-ups to Gees

#18: Quang Do (aka Richard Doverman)/Lisa take ‘84 U.S. Mixed from Diana/Brian

#19: Lisa enthusiastic about 1985 World’s and National Sport Festival

#20: Twins ready for new experience at RTP in Colorado Springs

#21: Sisters quite comfortable together: “We love one another.”

#22: Lisa finally upsets Lan

#23: Perennial U.S. Champion Insook Bhushan

#24: Lisa/Li Ai, 1986 U.S. Closed Women’s Doubles finalists to Insook/Diana

#25: Lisa/Chartchai, 1986 U.S. Closed Mixed Doubles finalists to Diana/Sean

#26: The twins in China, Summer, 1987

#27: Coach Li Henan offers kind words to Lisa after her loss to Canada’s Gloria Hsu

#28: Lan and Lisa: 1987 U.S. Closed Women’s Doubles finalists

#29: Lisa wins 1987 U.S. Women’s Amateur from Carol Davidson

#30: Rong Li rallies in unusual way to take 1988 Intercollegiate’s from Lisa

#31: Gee family united