ALAMEDA -- Table tennis has a reputation as a congenial sport. But at the highest levels, it also can become very competitive.
Four coaches and some of their players from the Alameda Table Tennis Club experienced both sides of the game at the 2012 U.S. National Table Tennis Championships, which took place Dec. 18-22 in Las Vegas, Nev.
One of the top players in the tournament, held at the Las Vegas Convention Center, was the ATTC's own Irina Hellwig, who won the title for 70-over women.
"It was a surprise for me," said Hellwig, 70, an Oakland hills resident.
For Hellwig and the nearly 1,000 other players competing in various age groups and ability levels, the convention center provided challenges of its own. Its concrete floor took a toll on the knees, ankles and feet of the players. Overall, though, the tournament was a rewarding experience.
"It was hard to move and jump," Hellwig said. "But everything's fine. You see a lot of people you know, a lot of your friends. It's great to see them before Christmas and before New Year."
Hellwig enjoyed the greatest success of any ATTC player in Las Vegas, but the club has some budding talent, too.
Of note, team captain David Zeng, 16, teamed up with 15-year-old Bryant Lin to reach the men's doubles quarterfinals after upsetting Samson David Dubina and Nirja Oak of Ohio, one of the tournament's top-seeded duos. Oak is a former national team member.
Zeng and Lin also reached the junior boys teams quarterfinals.
In all, the ATTC brought seven school-age players to the tournament ranging from Kevin Li, the youngest at 11, to Zeng, the oldest.
"Last year, we went with three players and came back with three titles," ATTC facilities managers Dave Hanson said. "This year (our younger players) didn't win any titles -- it's really difficult to bring back a title -- but we had a good showing."
Besides the challenge of the concrete floor, players had to acclimate themselves to the higher elevation of Las Vegas.
"It's a little bit of an adjustment because of the altitude," Hanson said. "There's drier, thinner air, and the ball is less affected by the air when it's spinning. When it's spinning fast in the Bay Area, it curves more."
The younger players adjusted the best they could. In addition to teaming up in two competitions, Zeng and Lin also competed in men's singles, junior boys singles and in the under-2400 round robin.
Ivy Li, 14 and no relation to Kevin, was a quarterfinalist in the under-1300. She also competed in cadet girls singles and in the under-1600, under-1500 and under-1200.
Edmond Tu, 13, reached the under-1100 quarterfinals. And Jordan Yee, a 14-year-old freshman at Oakland Skyline High School, made the quarterfinals at under-2300.
Tu also entered at under-1300, under-1200 and under-1000 levels. Yee also competed in the cadet boys singles, junior boys singles, the under-2400 and under-2200.
Norman Tu, 12, competed at the under-1300, under-1200, under-1100 and under-1000 levels. Kevin Li advanced from his group in the minicadet boys singles, the under-2300 and under-2100. He also competed in the under-2400, under-2000 and cadet boys singles.
"This year, we had four first-year players going to nationals," Hanson said. "The first year is kind of a shock event. We expect them to be better next year."
Parents who made the trip also found it enjoyable and worthwhile.
"It was a good experience for my son and family," said Victor Yee, father of Jordan. "It was the first tournament we went out of state for. The intensity was higher than any other competition, but my son handled it well. It was exciting and new to us. Overall, it was fun for us.
Congeniality and competition. They all came together for table tennis players in Las Vegas last month.