Eric Owens

By Tim Boggan

            Kenny Owens, with a very successful neuromuscular therapy practice in Houston TX, had, as one interviewer put it, “the financial resources to provide the right coaching, the right equipment, and the right opportunities” to help his son Eric involve himself in sports and excel in table tennis.

            Kenny “taught his son to ride a bike at the age of three by removing the seat. This forced little Eric to stand and build strength in his legs. The training wheels were then lifted, not so far that Eric would fall, but far enough that he had to learn to balance himself without them. Soon young Eric was riding a bike on his own.” And by the time he was six that bike was now a motorcycle—that’s right, a motorcycle—and he was into motocross racing round the ups, downs, and sharp-turn closed-course terrain that had graduated him  into the Cycling National Championships at the Astrodome. Watch out, here he comes!

 WHOOPS! Ambitious though Eric was, that bike was a little too big for him, and what did Ai Liguo there know about bike riding—he and wife Henan taught table tennis.

            Which brings to mind this photo: that is NOT the way to hold a racket, Eric. Show him, Henan. Yes, much better, though the backhand needs a little work.

            Father Kenny was a table tennis enthusiast much interested in offering companionable advice to Eric and keeping the two of them physically fit. Says nutritionist Kenny, “Sugar and white flour. Do you know how toxic that is for muscles? The only way to relieve the stress of that poison is to give the muscles [“OW!”] deep massages. Here Kenny is practicing on five-time U.S. Men’s Singles Champion Sean O’Neill. Points are held for about 8 seconds, pushing directly on the muscle, just a quarter inch at a time.” So, like father, like son. Both vegetarians, both runners. At age nine, Eric would run a full 26-mile marathon in reportedly 4 hours, 6 minutes, 8 seconds—which he once said was his “greatest athletic accomplishment.”

            Of course with intensity like that, it was understood that Eric, weaned on a miniature table his father had made for him, was able to win the Under 9 events at both the 1985 U.S. Open and Junior Nationals. That year his dad, as Mentor/Coach, took him to the World Table Tennis Championships in Sweden. While there, Kenny shot 180 hours of instructive world-class Tapes, and Eric got to hit 15 minutes with Poland’s super-star Grubba.

            In 1986 and 1987, in the 11’s, 12’s and 14’s at the U.S. Open, U.S. Closed, Junior Nationals, and Junior Olympics, Eric and his friend, doubles partner, and arch-rival Randy Cohen would battle it out, winning some, losing some.

            In 1988, U.S. promising players Derek May, Oscar Melvin, Brian Pace, and Eric, with father Kenny as Chaperone, were invited to Japan to train at their Butterfly sponsor’s famed Dohjo. For a month, the boys worked at their games six to eight hours a day. Twelve-year-old Eric’s only complaint was that fruit, so necessary for him, was very expensive.

            As the ‘90’s arrived, Eric and Randy continued their rivalry—with an improved Randy winning their Closed U-16 final. About this time, 15-year-old Eric “had taken to wearing a stud earring. Yep—dug out the ear-lobe hole with a safety pin. Sterilized of course. But though he used ice, “Yes,” he said, “it hurt a lot.” Larry Hodges spoke of the Eric-Randy “rambunctious friendship”—said that “rooming them together is said to be a recipe for an all-night party.”  Maybe so, but he and Eric continued their winning partnership play with the ’91 U.S. Open U-18 Doubles, defeating the formidable brother/sister team of U-14 Boys Champion Barney Reed and U-16 Girls Champion Kristey Reed who’d trained for six weeks at Nisse Sandberg’s Angby Club just outside Stockholm.

But, surprise, Eric lost the ’91 and ’92 Closed Boys High School titles to Jason St. George (a year ago rated just 1750), then balanced somewhat by winning the ’93 U.S. Open U-18’s over the #1 Canadian Junior, Pierre Paul Rouleau. At the ’95 U.S. Open, Eric sneakered by Reed, 24-22 in the third, after Barney had gotten past Randy, 26-24 in the third. Clearly, with the increased competition he faced, Eric was no lock for the U-22’s. Indeed, in that event at the ’93 U.S. Open, he again escaped U-18 winner Barney, 28-26 in the third in the semi’s, but fell to Todd Sweeris in the final. In mid-‘90’s U-22 finals play, Eric split matches with Sean Lonergan whose game had dramatically improved after he’d joined the Resident Training Program at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs. Here’s a shot of the RTPer’s. See anyone you recognize?...

Well, at this point, I recognize—most of your know him, he’s been around—Scott Preiss. Before I return to finish my Introducrion, Scott’s going to share with you some memorable moments he’s had with Eric. Scott…

…Thanks, Scott. You’ve made countless exhibitions fun….

Eric is now 20. By 1995 he’d come of age, paid his competitive dues. After some success at Olympic Festivals—a first in the Mixed, a second in the Singles, and a first in the Men’s Doubles—his future awaited him. Said his father, “Eric’s not always as motivated as he could be, but when he does try, he’s great. When he wants to do it for Eric, he’ll be terrific.”

            At the 1996 Olympic Trials, Eric lost his first five matches, but kept trying, wanted to stay in there for Eric’s sake, and won his last six to finish in fifth place. That determination also showed in a match he lost to U.S. Team member Sweeris. At 1-1 in games, Eric, down 20-14 in the third, won 8 straight; then down 20-16 in the fifth, deuced it before losing.

After having won both the U.S. Closed and North American Doubles Championships with Barney Reed, Eric was serious about improving his game. “He modernized his technique—shortened his stroke, played closer to the table—and through multi-ball practice two hours a day, six days a week, he improved his footwork. To be even more fit, he followed a very strict vegetarian diet of raw foods—might risk walnut slivers for a snack, but no dressing on the salad, that ruined the taste of the lettuce. There also had to be time during the day for meditation—“I’d like to get up to two hours a day,” he said. “It really helps my concentration when I get out there to play.” And maybe he needed two trips daily to father Kenny’s clinic for physical therapy treatments?

To prepare for the 1999 Pan Am Trials, Eric trained two months in China, then went to Sweden for three weeks of competitive play. So, was the effort worth it?  “Played my best ever,” he said. “Finished second.”

Off then he went—though not with the new GM car the Olympic Committee had awarded him—to the Mexico Open, won the Singles and with Razvan Cretu the Doubles, and came home with $1200 in spend-or-save prize money.

 For more preparation before the Pan Am Games in Canada, Eric was back in China, doing very intensive serve and attack variations, backhand footwork drills, and buckets of multiball practice. Asked “How many table tennis shoes, sheets of rubber, and balls do you go through in a year?” Eric answered, “20 shoes, 100 sheets of rubber, and over 1,000 balls.”

In Winnipeg, the U.S., led by repeat U.S. Closed Champions, David Zhuang and Gao Jun, made a clean sweep of the Pan Am titles. Both Eric and Todd Sweeris lost in the Singles to a Cuban, but Eric showed that his familiar resolve was also golden by winning his three Preliminary Singles, 23-21 in the 3rd, 24-22 in the 3rd, and 22-20 in the 3rd. Later, Eric would represent the U.S. in two more Pan Am Games, winning a Team Bronze in the 1997 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

With three World Championships in England, Malaysia, and Japan behind him, Eric was ready to take on the new millennium. Very big moments for Eric at the 2001 Closed. In the Singles quarter’s, he outlasted Sean Lonergan, 12-10 in the seventh. Then, with exceptional loops and blocks and a saving 13-11 swing win that broke up an almost disastrous -9, -9, -9, -3 losing streak, he downed David Zhuang. And in the final he defeated Cheng Yinghua who couldn’t recover from a bad -9, -10, -9 start. Eric also did well in the Doubles—a Men’s winner with Zhuang; a Mixed runner-up with Jasna (nee Fazlic) later Rather. Obviously he was the star of the tournament and deserved his front-page Topics reward.

In 2002, Texas Wesleyan University President Hal Jeffcoat offered Eric a full scholarship, and Eric, along with Jasna, taking advantage of the opportunity, won for self and the University National Intercollegiate Championships in 2004, 2005, and 2006. In between his tournament  play—that included standout down-to-the-wire wins in 2005 over the Canadian star (top left) Pradeeban Peter-Paul, and in 2007 over the German-trained professional (bottom left) Stefan Feth), he graduated with a major in biochemistry.

            So now it’s 2008, and 33-year-old Eric, after a quarter-century of tournament play, is still in there for Eric’s sake. Larry Hodges tells us that Eric is now a second-year medical student at the reincarnation of my doctor father and uncle’s 1920’s Chicago School of Osteopathy. Only four more years of learning to go, and as soon as he’s done with some lab work and his Master’s thesis, he says he’ll be able to practice table tennis a lot more.

Sure he will. Except you know he’s not preparing for serious matches when he’s writing a thesis on “Leukotactinin Induces Migration and Proliferation of Fibroblast-like Synovial Cells Through Mitogen Activities Protein Kinases.”

Never mind. He played enough, and well enough, to be honored here tonight. Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Eric Owens.