By Chad Ouellette
The rapid drumming of ping-pong balls echoes through the Geng Table Tennis Academy’s training area where a group of students practice across four tables for their upcoming matchups.
With a gold medal on the line at the Canada Winter Games, proud parents watch as both Taiwanese-born Yu-Hsan Chen (who also goes by Sabrina) and Ann Shiao rehearse quick rallies and point-winning techniques with their coach Lijuan Geng and other members of the academy.
The women training are two parts of the six-member team who are set to represent Team Ontario at the upcoming Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta.
The amount of training that goes in to preparing table tennis players for competition may often be overlooked, but make no mistake, Chen and Shiao are fine-tuning their bodies and skills on a constant basis.
“It’s definitely different from football and rugby, and sports like that,” Shiao says. “But we work a lot on speed and power and in-game situations. When you’re in a match you actually need to think a lot about how to win the point. It’s a lot of mental things when you’re playing to, so a lot of that.”
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Shiao not only trains three times a week, but she also goes to the gym as much as possible to ensure that her core, legs and arms and are in perfect condition for matchups.
Chen also stays on top of her game by practicing and training every opportunity she has, says her head coach, and former Team Canada table tennis player, Horatio Pintea.
“Sabrina is a very determined player,” says Pintea. “She loves to practice, and she does a lot of extra work on her own. The family has invested a lot in her career because they travel to Toronto to attend competitions, training camps, and they go back to Taiwan sometimes to practice and so on. For them it’s a very serious investment.”
Both girls have immense family support, something that is essential for athletes who are trying to bring themselves to the next level.
“For Ann, she’s been very dedicated,” Pintea says. “I’ve known her since 2009 or so, and she’s always loved competing. … She trains hard. Whenever she practices, she does it seriously.”
Both girls will be representing Team Ontario, and both have partners who currently live in Toronto. Chen will be taking part in the mixed doubles event with her partner Alexander Bu and Shiao will be alongside Jin Wu for the women’s doubles event.
Having to coordinate with someone who you often don’t have the chance to train with sounds difficult, but both Shiao and Chen treat it for what it is, and practice hard to ensure they’re prepared.
“Doubles definitely requires a lot of coordination,” says Shiao. “It’s not actually splitting half of the table. One person plays the ball, and then they move out of the way, and then the next person plays the ball. It’s a lot of rotating and playing one ball each.”
For Chen, she explains that there aren’t very high expectations when your partner is in another city, but she is excited for the opportunity to play mixed doubles.
“It’s kind of fun to play when your partner is a boy instead of a girl. Your style of play will be different. For girl’s doubles, you would just play girls style. With a boy, maybe you need to talk together and figure out how you’re going to play,” Chen says.
Both Shiao and Chen have been playing for close to a decade, and in that period they have had the opportunity to represent themselves at national tournaments and play abroad. Shiao even had the opportunity to represent Canada at the Pan-American Junior Games.
Pintea explained that the Canada Winter Games is just another step in the right direction for the two up-and-coming athletes.
“These girls are the best in Ontario essentially,” he says. “It’s a long process but they got it.”
There’s one other racquet-sport athlete representing Ottawa at the Games, Team Quebec’s Iman Shaheen. She’ll be competing for Team Quebec in squash. She’ll don the fleurs-de-lis because she competes for the Gatineau club Sporthèque. Shaheen, 13, hopes to follow up a tremendous 2018 in which she competed for the Canadian junior team, was named the Under 15 player of the year by Squash Ontario and the Ottawa Sports Awards squash player of the year.