Ping Pong Phenom

WEB-pingpong spread2-Mark Burnham

He’s 18, but doesn’t look it. He doesn’t look like a ping-pong player either, but he is, and a damn good one at that. After just four years of hitting balls with a paddle, he’s well on his way to becoming a master of his trade. He’s already the best in the world in his age group, yet few people could tell you who Luke Henry actually is. Fortunately, PQ uncovered everything there is to know about the least famous superstar on the mountain.

IT’S LATE on one of the first Saturday nights of the young fall semester at Simon Fraser University, and Pauline Jewett House, one of the school’s many residential buildings, is appropriately busy. First- and second-year students emerge from their dorms and flock to the bus stop, wearing far too little for the dropping temperatures, and ready to find love for a night.

On the fourth floor of the nearly empty building, ping-pong balls line the halls. But there are no red cups, no strewn-about PBR cans, and no lingering scent of AXE body spray left behind by the young varsity athletes that live here, if only at night.

All there is, is Luke Henry. He’s alone, as he says he often is, smashing ping-pong balls off his very own green and white tabletop, fastened to the built-in desk in his room. It’s a small room; there’s little space to move around. While his popped-collared, high-heeled floormates commandeer the common room, Henry works on his serve in his tight corridors. The concrete wall is hardly a worthy opponent for his swerving service, rebounding his Three Stars back out of his open door. He learned long ago that few can match up with him.

SFU’s table tennis prodigy is far from the school’s darkest secret, but he might be it’s best kept one.

 

WEB-pingpong spread-mark burnham copy

HE DIDN’T start early. In fact, the 18-year old phenom first picked up a ping-pong paddle just three years ago, and only because there was a table at his rowing club.

The Grimsby, Ont. native moved to Toronto with his family to pursue rowing with the Argonaut Rowing Club, one of Canada’s oldest, and most prestigious clubs, when he was 13. He was always good at rowing. But one day, he explains, a ping-pong table just appeared in the club after practice. After picking up the paddle and acing his first serve (or so the story goes), it wasn’t long before he left the oars behind. He was always better at ping-pong.

“It just felt natural,” he says. “The paddle just fit in my hand. From that first swing, I knew it was something I wanted, needed, to pursue.

“In rowing you always know your next move. You know, ‘stroke, stroke, stroke.’ But ping-pong is so reactionary,” explains Henry.

He leans forward, a smile breaking through his stern demeanour. “Where or when the ball is going to come to you is a mystery you have to solve in a split second. The angle of your opponent’s paddle, how he hits the ball . . . it’s fun, man.”

He’s had that same enthusiasm for his sport for three years now, and it hasn’t waned for a moment. He’s driven, only by himself — he was emphatic that his parents put no pressure on him — to be the first Canadian to make the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Top 20.

“There are some stereotypes surrounding table tennis,” he says. “And understandably. Ma Long, Xu Xin…the best players are all from China. Right now the ITTF’s Top 5 are all from China. People think if I’m from North America, from Canada, I can’t be any good. I want to do what I can to change those stereotypes. I want to leave my own mark.”

He’s well on his way. Henry has dominated competition up to this point; he currently ranks first in the ITTF World Boys Junior Top Twenty. He’s never lost a game, which bodes well for his transition to senior competition next year.

His game is a combination of natural strength, acquired through rowing, and learned finesse. Hours and hours of practicing his spin has given him a shot unparalleled in the world of ping-pong. But outside that world, Henry strives to be just another kid.

He’s doing the college thing the best that he can ó meeting friends, watching hockey, falling behind on his readings ó because he knows he can’t play forever. He’s better than everyone when it comes to ping-pong, though he knows that won’t always be the case.

“Ping-pong is a big part of my life right now, but really, it’s such a small part of it as a whole,î he says. ìI know that. So I need to make sure I can grow to be the best at other things, too.”

He’s just started his college career as a Kinesiology major, something he admits will help him learn more about how to use his thick frame to further dominate his opponents.

But it’s also just the start for him as a ping-pong player, too. Luke Henry has been a central figure in the world of table tennis for a few years now, but few on the outside know who this kid is. He’s not just a guy who bats balls off a wall to pass the time; he’s a superstar in the making.

Sorry, Luke. the secret’s out.

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