TRAVERSE CITY — A father and son step to the table.
They faced off thousands of times before; none of the previous bouts were like this — when hundreds of hours spent pelting shots at each other in the basement playing table tennis finally came to a head.
Nick Hains, a 19-year-old Traverse City native, faced his father, Jeff Shaw, in the 85th Michigan Table Tennis State Championship in March.
Hains defeated his dad in only four games, just weeks before earning a national championship as a part of the Texas Wesleyan University table tennis team in April.
“That moment was pretty special,” Hains said of his state title match against Shaw.
“It took a long time to get here. There are a lot of brackets you have to go through and a lot of people you have to beat. The fact we were able to do all that and meet in the final was special in itself.
“It was a family championship so it was like a dream matchup.”
Hains began playing table tennis when he was 8 years old, joining his father and older brother Matt in what has become a family passion.
“I probably beat him a few thousand times, and as a dad you always want your kid to be better than you,” Shaw said.
“When it happens it kind of ticks you off. But it is what you always want.”
Shaw competed in some big tournaments when Hains was a child and Matt started the club table tennis team at Grand Valley State University, provoking his love for the game and cementing him as a lifelong player early on.
The family made a tradition out of Tuesday nights at the Northern Michigan Table Tennis Club, something they have done for more than 10 years.
“Coming to the club was something I always looked forward to every week because it was something we always did together,” Hains said during a club session at Leelanau Studios.
“I would come here to play as much as I could and it made me decide it was something I wanted to do after high school.”
Throughout his high school tennis career at Traverse City Central, Hains continued to practice table tennis in his spare time and found out from a friend at the NMTTC that the sport is something he could pursue in college.
His friend went on to play at Lindenwood University, and Hains was prepared to follow his lead, but the Lions table tennis program folded just three weeks before he was set to start school.
What seemed like a huge road block turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Hains researched a new home and found a place at Texas Wesleyan, which just happens to be the preeminent table tennis program in the country.
“We always look for kids who have positive character and can be a positive influence on others and he is one of those kids,” Texas Wesleyan head coach Jasna Rather said.
“He is really devoted. You can count on him. It was very valuable for him to join Texas Wesleyan.”
Hains became a part of the seven-person co-ed team that won the 2019 NCTTA National Championship as a freshman and returns to action this weekend down in Texas.
“It was like a dream come true,” Hains said of competing at Texas Wesleyan. “You imagine being on a team with players of that type of skill and to see it come in front of you is unreal.
“I think it is where I am meant to be. Looking at the success of Texas Wesleyan ... to be a part of that is humbling.”
The Rams have won 71 national championships since the program started in 2001, the most of any school in the country.
Hains was a part of a doubles team with Victor Segui Barragan last year, a player from Spain. Hains is one of only two Americans on the Rams team, which has made for an even more immersive experience than he originally planned.
“It was eye-opening,” he said of his first year in Texas. “There was a lot of new friends that I made from a lot of different countries. I had never been that far from home for that period of time, so there was some adapting there, but I think it helped me grow.”
He is receiving a partial scholarship that covers room and board at Texas Wesleyan and routinely helps with the language barrier on his teammates’ classwork.
Hains reached an all-time high player rating of 1,722 following the state title win over his father and is hoping to increase that rating to 2,100 or 2,200 over the next several years as a Ram, which is very possible since he’s raised his rating by over 1,000 points in the last four years.
He is studying business at Texas Wesleyan and achieved a 3.95 GPA in his first year and hopes to continue playing table tennis professionally after school with hopes to land on Team USA. Hains recognizes that his path through life has been unique and embraces it whenever someone questions his journey.
“You can’t let people tell you what you can and can’t do,” he said. “You have to keep persisting on what you want to do. I have taken a pretty unique path, so people always ask what I am going to do playing table tennis. You have to have courage to keep yourself up.”
“I would come here to play as much as I could and it made me decide it was something I wanted to do after high school.” Nick Hains