ALAMEDA -- A 1971 visit by the United States national table tennis team to the People's Republic of China marked a turning point in world history. "Ping-Pong diplomacy" became part of the lexicon as the event paved the way toward full diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Nothing as groundbreaking in sports had occurred before. Nor has anything since. Nonetheless, sports has the ability to bring people together. In that sense, the Alameda Table Tennis Club serves as a small-scale reminder.

Now four years old, the club brings together an increasing number of people who enjoy, appreciate -- and love -- table tennis.

"There's definitely a community there -- there's regulars, of which I'm one," said club member John Gipple, who plays anywhere from three to five times a week by his own account.

Though generally regarded as a local organization, the Alameda Table Tennis Club serves a wide region and reflects table tennis' international popularity, too.

"The Bay Area is a mecca for table tennis, and the reason for this is a large immigrant population," said ATTC Facilities Manager Dave Hanson. "Of the notable personalities with our club, coach Zaman Molla was a member of the Iranian national team and one of the top players in Iran for 16 years; our head coach Avishy Schmidt is from Israel and coach Hong Yang -- before coming here, she coached in China for seven years."


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As its name suggests, the ATTC serves many Alameda residents, though there are some, such as Berkeley resident Gipple, who will commute a ways to reach the Lincoln Avenue facility.

"Our training program is so strong that players come from all over," Hanson said. "We get people from Berkeley, Orinda, San Lorenzo ... we have a kid from Concord and a guy even came over from San Francisco."

But diversity at the ATTC extends beyond countries of origin and places of residence.

"We've got people from about 6 to 70 years old, and we've got all different levels," Hanson said. "We've got national champions."

Head coach Schmidt, for instance, won the national 50-older men's title last year (he also had been a 40-older champion before the ATTC existed). Coach Molla is ranked among the top 20 players in the United States, too.

As for younger players, club member Kevin Li won the 2010 national championship for 9-under boys. And David Zeng earned a top-10 ranking among 15-under boys players that same year.

Another inspiring story is that of Bryant Lin, one of the club's top junior players.

"He walked into our club, and 18 months later won two events at the nationals," Hanson said.

The ATTC accommodates players at all levels, offering training sessions to beginners all the way to competitive play. And at whatever level, players might expect to experience a most egalitarian sport.

"One of the cool things in table tennis is that the gender gap is very small," Hanson said. "It's possible to have some of the top women from overseas come here and beat all the top men. A Chinese university women's team did just that in Baltimore."

Table tennis has grown in popularity through the years. Hanson recalled when the Concord Table Tennis Club was the only "serious" table tennis organization in the Bay Area. Now, some two decades later, he estimates that the number of similar clubs in the region approaches 10. At the ATTC, newcomers can comfortably learn the game while more seasoned players hone their edge.

"It's a little more intense than in community centers where people just hit the ball back and forth," Gipple said. "But they have family nights and senior classes (for potentially more casual play) -- so they do outreach."

That outreach is very extensive. On Saturday mornings, a group called Friends of Children with Special Needs teaches the game to kids with physical and mental challenges.

Table tennis, a sport of English origins, has come a long way through the years. Though "Ping-Pong diplomacy" might have set off a miniboom of table tennis in the early 1970s, the game now is even more popular. And as an Olympic sport since 1988, the level of competition only continues to rise.

The groundbreaking events of the 1970s are unlikely to be repeated, though they greatly added to table tennis' very rich history. And those who come to the ATTC can either get introduced to, or sharpen their competitive edge in, a most diverse, growing sport.

And have a great time doing it.

INFORMATION
The Alameda Table Tennis Club is located in the gym behind the Livingwater Center/Church (former home of the Alameda Boys and Girls Club) at 2050 Lincoln Ave. (between Willow and Chestnut streets). Enter through the gate to the right of the building (next to the Haight Middle School field and playground).
The club is open every day except the last Friday of each month. Hours vary. Players of all ages and skill levels are welcome. Training is available. For competitive players, round-robin play takes place Sundays and Wednesdays, and a rumble tournament (with a possible $100 prize to the winner and prizes to the top eight finishers) takes place monthly.
The club also features a pro shop on certain days.
For more information, go to www.alamedattc.org or call 415-287-0352.