TRAVERSE CITY — Coordination. Speed. Reflexes.
These are some of the words Jeff Shaw uses when talking about table tennis, one of his favorite sports.
Shaw can often be found playing — whether in his northern Michigan home or at venues across the country — when he is not working as Elmwood Township supervisor.
Shaw, 57, said he picked up the hobby during childhood, when he played against his brothers. His oldest brother always had trouble defeating him, so Shaw decided to continue the sport through middle and high school.
“I learned to be fast as well as a good table tennis player,” he said. “I have good hand-eye coordination. That’s what it’s all about.”
Shaw, who recently retired from 30 years as a chiropractor, said he finally lost a game when one of his patients invited him to play in Traverse City. He said that's when he realized he was not as good as he thought.
Still, he tests his table tennis skills at three or four tournaments each year, including the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championships in Florida. Most recently, he earned two gold medals during the Michigan Senior Olympics.
His regional-level wins qualified him for national events like the 2009 Bud Light Hardbat Classic, a made-for-television event in Los Angeles. Shaw said about 1,200 players participated and he ended up third in the country.
“It was a very cool thing, a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said.
Tournament practice, Shaw said, consisted of hitting 2,000 balls each night with the help of a robot. The machine, similar to a tennis ball shooter, ejects up to three balls per second. This allowed Shaw to perfect his form and play for longer periods than he could versus another human.
“Everybody knows how to play,” he said. “People love the game, but a game in the basement is one thing and the sport is another.”
In the professional pastime, the small white balls can fly 100 mph or more. Shaw said the International Table Tennis Federation about 10 years ago made the ball bigger to make it easier for spectators to watch, but speeds did not change much.
He said his favorite aspect of the sport nowadays is getting to compete with his sons, Matthew and Nicholas. Table tennis allows that during events that aren’t divided into age categories.
“As a parent, you raise your kids to be better than you, but when it happens, you’re not prepared,” Shaw said, laughing. “There’s not a lot of sports where a dad and a couple of sons can play together.”
Shaw’s younger son Nicholas Hains is finishing up his first year at Texas Wesleyan University, where he studies business. Hains is part of a table tennis group that competed — and won — at the national level in April.
“That was pretty exciting,” he said.
He said playing with — and often losing to — his father gave him valuable skills and experience that he took with him to college. Plus, it is fun.
“We’ve played so many times,” he said. “It’s something my dad and I both really enjoy, so we’ll be playing for a while.”
Hains said the college program is strong, with the 13-15 members practicing four times per week throughout the school year.
His favorite thing about table tennis is meeting people.
“It’s a friendly sport,” he said. “A lot of people make friends just from playing. Anybody can play — very young people and very old people. Everybody should give it a shot.”
Though Shaw does not compete as much as he used to, he said a local table tennis club meets from 6-9 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at Leelanau Studios. Players do not need championships under their paddles to join.
“People of all different abilities and ages are welcome to play,” he said. “The people that play are great. I’ve met a lot of interesting people over the years.”