Columbus Table Tennis Club draws from diverse, immigrant communities

2021-12-27 10:02:11 By : Mr. John Zhang

The light plock of a ping pong ball sailing from racket to racket echoes across the warehouse-turned-Olympic-regulated round robin.

Ahad Sarand uses his right hand to steady the grip of his wheelchair, gracefully maneuvering his body to anticipate the return from his opponent, Jane Lie, while his left hand grips a paddle, making Lie work for it.

Lie's sneakers squeak across the linoleum while the fluorescent lighting reflects off the sweat gathering at Sarand's temples. He propels his chair back and forth, side-to-side, before deftly bouncing a ball outside Lie's reach.

Across the gym, members of the Columbus Table Tennis Club warm up before their weekly round-robin tournament begins. Columns draped with flags from around the world — from Sri Lanka to Sweden, Iran and so many more — divide each individual court.

"It's a bit like the United Nations," Lie, the president of the club, said.

The club has been around since the late 1950s, and now operates as a nonprofit organization open seven days a week, with roughly 80 members around Greater Columbus who are originally from 23 different countries.

Lie, 59, born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, went to Ohio State University for his undergraduate degree and joined the club 34 years ago. But he's been playing table tennis since he was 9 and has served as the club's president for the past decade.

"The club," he said, "belongs to the players."

On a brisk December night, those players trade jabs, laughs and volleys in their club's brightly lit gym on the East Side. They range in age from 17 to 84, and are comprised of immigrants and Columbus natives, novices and Paralympians.

Clad in a red, white and blue Team USA table tennis jersey, Sarand, a 56-year-old Iranian immigrant, is no stranger to defying expectations.

Paralyzed from the waist down at 2½ from polio, Sarand's parents could only afford a portion of their son's treatment. As a result, his left leg, three inches shorter than the right, never properly healed, leaving him with a limping gait.

Unable to play soccer while growing up in Tabriz, Iran, Sarand took to table tennis at a young age. A middle school coach recognized his talent and he joined his city's para team, which catapulted him to represent Iran in the World Championships and Games for the Disabled in the Netherlands in 1990.

But life in the Middle East was fraught with uncertainty. When Sarand graduated from high school, his country was in the midst of a 12-year war with Iraq. By the time he and his wife had their first son, they planned to emigrate to the United States.

They moved to Worthington In 1996, and Sarand, his wife and two sons became U.S. citizens in 2006. Sarand kept up with table tennis, but wasn't aware of the local club for several years. In 2017, he joined USA Table Tennis and earned a silver medal in the 2019 Paralympic Games in Lima, Peru.

"It was one of my dreams for a long, long time," he said. "When I joined, I was so proud to represent the USA."

Sarand has aspirations to qualify for the 2024 Paralympic Games after narrowly missing the gold medal in 2019 and COVID putting a pin in his chances to compete last summer.

Participating in international competitions — Sarand was the runner-up in his division during the International Table Tennis Federation's Para Copa tournament in Costa Rica last week — adds up financially the star explained.

It's why he cherishes the support he's found from friends at the Columbus Table Tennis Club, who have pooled resources to help cover his expenses in Costa Rica and in previous competitions.

"My friends here have donated, helped me, and it gives me hope," he said. "It's so important that I have people rooting for me."

Anne and Al Fish have been integral to the Columbus Table Tennis Club's longevity.

The couple helped draft the organization's constitution back in 1961, served on its board and secured the club's many locations over the years: from the basement of a bowling alley in old Olentangy Village in Clintonville, multiple spots Downtown and eventually to their current space off Interstate 71 in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood.

Over the years, they have watched the club's demographics change as Ohio State and organizations such as Battelle and Chemical Abstracts drew in people from immigrant communities.

"We like the diversity," Anne Fish said. "From walk-ins to regulars you look around and see all different kind of people. You feel at home."

Over the past few months, the 83-year-old has collected stories from the members about their journeys to the United States, and hopes to catalogue them for the club's posterity.

Between managing the club's finances and coordinating tournaments, running the organization is a lot of responsibility for Jan Lie, the club's president.

"It's hard to make money with this sport," he said, explaining that he wishes the city would offer them more help.

Despite the logistical and physical challenges of the sport, which many of the players compare to the mental gymnastics involved in chess, Lie said sustaining the table tennis community is still rewarding.

"Young, old, female, male, everyone can play," Lie said. "It keeps you mentally engaged, but it's also a social club, you can talk about anything here."

In between a break in the round-robin, Prakash Annamraju, Dinesh Navalurkar and Srihan DeLivera stand off to the sidelines, joking around.

"This has offered me a social circle and friendship among everybody that keeps us going," Navalurkar said.

"This club is also like a brotherhood," he added, explaining that guys cheer on folks like Ahad Sarand when they participate in International Table Tennis Federation tournaments.

Annamraju, a 38-year-old immigrant from India, said that Columbus' club is particularly welcoming. He travels for work and has visited another table tennis club in Virginia that doesn't have the same spirit or diversity.

"It's a social club," DeLivera agreed.

Sure, as DeLivera gets older, he finds table tennis an addictive way to sharpen your mind as well as your reflexes — it's not uncommon for balls to fly at 80 miles an hour he explains — but the camaraderie is the most important tenet of the club.

At the sound of a whistle and shouts from across the gym, the trio of players break up for the next round of their tournament. Navalurkar clasps the shoulders of a fellow player on the way back to his table, a high schooler named Samhit Kasichainula.

The 17-year-old, another Indian immigrant, laughed. He's been playing competitively for almost a decade, but his school doesn't have a table tennis club. He's found joy, and competition, in challenging himself to play against the adults.

The Columbus Table Tennis Club has become a second family to him as well.

Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at