Oakridge: At Langara YMCA, tables serve more than ping pong

Friendships and pot luck breakfasts shared over table tennis.

Ping pong keeps Harry Luk 63 years young.

The one-time tennis player switched to the table version of the sport more than 25 years ago and visits the Langara YMCA for at least one game every day of the week. “Some days twice,” he said. 

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The split-second pace and lightning strikes that enliven a table tennis rally require unrelenting concentration and tightly wound reflexes. For 45 minutes, players stay on their feet with their eyes fixed on the ball while maintaining balance and engaging all their muscle groups.

“It’s good for your whole body, including your eyesight,” said Luk during an interview this week.

His friend leaned forward and added, “It enhances your sex life.”

Luk laughed and nodded. “It’s cardio!”

On a recent Tuesday evening at the Y on 49th Avenue beside Langara College, Luk wrapped up a match with Umesh Lakhanpal, 20 years his junior.

“I want to be like him when I’m 63 years old,” Lakhanpal said.

Their t-shirts were wet with sweat and Luk, a trim man who had few laugh lines despite a frequent smile, had tied a neatly folded paper towel around his bald head.

“If you play with a good player, you become a better player yourself,” Lakhanpal added. 

The Langara YMCA tables are elbowed into a hallway between children’s play areas and two racquet sport courts, which are used every day for table tennis. Nets were strung up between tables six years ago to keep errant balls from bouncing away and under the feet of nearby players.

The tables are so popular, players are limited to booking only one 45-minute session each week yet bookings remain very high at 80 per cent capacity every day. Stephanie Chan, who has won medals for Canada at two Para-Pan American Games, trains at the Langara Y.

The tables are busy from opening to closing with a quieter lull at lunchtime. When the Y was designed and built more than 35 years ago, no one could have anticipated how the space would be repurposed or predict the social gatherings, breakfast potlucks and friendships that have formed around the tables.

“This is like a second home,” said Nina Cheng, who was at the YMCA with her husband to play doubles with married friends they’d met around the very same tables. Before their match, one of the husbands, Lawrence Chang, played a video on the health benefits of ping pong. “It’s good for reflexes,” he said. “Doctors even say it’s good for balance and eyesight.”

Cheng hadn’t played since she was a high schooler in Taiwan but was frequently at the YMCA for yoga and was eventually drawn to the crowd playing ping pong. “In the morning, there are even more people,” she said. Players rotate through games and bring food to share such as steamed buns and congee plus you tiao, or crullers, to dip. The YMCA provides a coffee maker.

“This is the only group that I know of at this YMCA as well as probably any other YMCA that integrates their activity and sport with aspects of socializing and food,” said general manager Ian Broadbent. The Langara Y has a membership of 7,200 people and roughly 150 people arrive to play table tennis at least once every week.

“It’s pretty special and a unique aspect of this building,” he said. “A lot of the players have been members for quite some time, anywhere from 10 to 20 years, so they’ve played a large role at our Y for shaping the types of programs and the use of space.”

The YMCA on the two-acre lot next to Langara College will be torn down in the near future for a housing development. Planning is in the very initial stages but eventually there will be a new Y at a different site that could better accommodate table tennis.

This possibility, while only speculative, pleases Luk. “Membership would go up by at lease 10 or 20 per cent,” he said, noting the crowded, cramped space is far from ideal despite the high use.

Luk once played with the Chinatown Ping Pong Club, a social recreational institution that has since closed. He met Lakhanpal five years ago at the Y after Lakhanpal migrated to Canada with his wife and two children. (The family became citizens this summer. Luk said of his friend: “He can sing you the national anthem if you ask.”)

The younger man dropped in to play table tennis because it seemed like good exercise although he didn’t see many people who looked like him in the games. Lakhanpal now plays four times a week after work and fits in with a group of friends he might not have otherwise met.

“Not a lot of Indians are playing here,” he said. “Most of the time I see 90 per cent Chinese people and look at their age — some of them are older but quite fit. People here are good, they know the game and they give training to the kids.”

He added: “They need 10 tables.”

mstewart@vancourier.com

Twitter.com/MHStewart

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