The Princess of Pong
Texas Wesleyan is a powerhouse in American table tennis, led by
The Princess of Pong
By Dan McGraw
It’s the beginning of summer in the city, and like most college athletes, Jasna Reed is taking it comparatively easy. But that wasn’t her plan.
A former Olympic medalist, she expected to be neck deep in the Olympics by now, representing the United States in a sport in which the ball moves as fast as a speeding car but on a court no bigger than a compact sedan. Reed, 38, is a four-time Olympian in table tennis — what we in America call ping-pong and think of as a little recreational game, not a real sport. You know, beer in one hand, racket in the other, and a plucky bouncing little white ball that goes back and forth.
Table tennis is one of the most popular sports in the world. The game has the largest participant base of any sport — hundreds of millions of casual players, and, according to the International Table Tennis Federation, about 40 million competitive players, meaning they hit the ball for their country or local clubs and compete in open tournaments.
In America, it hasn’t been a real sport for more than 50 years. But there is some movement to change that, and the center of that movement might be here in Fort Worth, with Reed as a key player. Texas Wesleyan University is the only four-year college in the country to offer ping-pong scholarships and, in an amazing six-year run, has won virtually every collegiate table tennis championship. Reed is one of the national collegiate champions as well as being coach of the team.
Despite some Americans’ view that ping-pong is just a kids’ game or a distraction at the office, Jasna Reed is an athlete. A wiry 5’ 7”, she trains with weights and aerobics. In a game, she is bouncing constantly, jumping in the air to smash one over the net, moving back and forth to return the smashes of her opponent. Her arms move as fast as a boxer’s and her legs like a basketball player’s on defense, all while striking the little white ball to a specific spot at 50 mph, meaning it takes only an eighth of a second to cover the length of the table.
The game might be fast, but Reed, dressed in loose-fitting sweats, was moving a little slowly in her TWU office — she had a touch of the flu. But she was vibrant in talking about her sport and pulled no punches. She loves playing but isn’t thrilled about ping-pong’s current place in the pantheon of American sports.
If everything had gone right for Reed this year, she would have been playing in her fifth Olympics — and, significantly, playing in China, the leading country in the world for table tennis. But she didn’t make the team this time, and she concedes that maybe she’s begun the transition from world-class athlete to what comes after that.
“I just ran out of gas,” she said of her performance in the Olympic trials earlier this year. “I’ve never liked practicing that much anyway, but with coaching and school work” — she’s working on a master’s degree in education — “and everything else, I just didn’t have the time. So the first two days I won all my matches, but in the last two days I didn’t play every well.
“But it doesn’t bother me now,” insisted Reed, who was raised in Croatia. “It is virtually impossible for any American to compete in this sport at the Olympics. The top table tennis players in the world make good money, train full-time, and are famous in their countries. Here you have to make a living [at something else], and the sport gets treated like a hobby.”
So why would the former Yugoslavian bronze medalist have chosen to live in one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t get behind her sport? It is a complicated story of war, global politics, love, and money — and the need to satisfy Reed’s passion for learning. She has played all over the world, including professionally in Europe and Asia, but now is back in the college ranks in, essentially, a table tennis backwater country.
When TWU started its table tennis program in 2002, Reed was the first player recruited. She is now in her second swim through the scholarship program and hopes she can stay for a long time.
“I still love to compete, and the [TWU] program allows me to do that,” she said, smiling. “But this school has become like a family to me, and I hope to get a doctorate in education and teach here some day. I didn’t really want to coach, but I am finding it is a great way to keep this program at the highest level.
“I guess I’m here because this school and city feel like home to me now,” she said. “People have always thought I had this wild side to me, but I was never really like that. So being around this school with all of the great people here is very important to me now.”
Reed was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1970 and started playing table tennis at age eight at her parents’ suggestion. Her sister was already playing, and her uncle was a coach. “At first, I did not really like table tennis,” she said. “As soon as my parents would leave the training hall, I would leave too and usually sneak next door where there was karate and gymnastic training.” But she won her first tournament and “really liked the feeling of winning, and that kept me in this sport for such a long time.”
In the years since then, she has won that Olympic bronze medal and various European championships and was many times listed among the top 10 players in the world. But in the table tennis world, she’s just as well known for what happens away from the table. She’s always been attractive — not drop-dead, fashion-model gorgeous, but with that tomboy look of toughness and an independence that men love to see in female athletes. In non-college competitions, she is known for wearing pastel mini-skirts during competition rather than the usual gym shorts. Her press photo isn’t an action shot, but a posed picture of her smiling seductively at the camera.
The ITTF is now getting with the program of mini-skirts. Steve Daiton, director of the ITTF’s Asia office, believes that changing the way female players dress will increase the sport’s global appeal.
“With China getting more and more dominant in the sport, the table tennis audience has gone into a decline,” Daiton told the China Daily last year. “We hope the fresh elements, especially changing female players’ appearances from mannish to more feminine, will help us hold on to the eyes we are losing in table tennis, and in a fashionable way.”
No one would accuse Jasna Reed of being mannish. But she’s found herself in the trap of so many other women athletes, celebrated by the male-dominated sports media more for her looks than her athletic talents. Tennis player Anna Kornikova never won a tournament, but her beauty made her famous. Race car driver Danica Patrick may be known more for her bikini photos than her track performance. It’s a double standard, but some women athletes choose to market their sexuality. “I’m just who I am,” Reed said.
In a 2004 feature story on table tennis in GQ magazine, author Matthew Kiam admitted he was mesmerized by Reed. He wrote about “Staring at Jasna throughout the women’s final, watching her hop up and down in her skirt,” and how she has “the kind of face I’d like to kiss when this is all over, for about an hour, smack on the lips, on a big soft couch.”
Reed’s love life has been the subject of much speculation. “I hate it when you guys write about this,” she said. “They make it sound like I’m the trollop of table tennis.”
At age 19, she married fellow Yugoslav table tennis star Ilija “Lupi” Lupulesku, but the violent breakup of their country broke up their marriage as well. “We were at the Mediterranean Games in August of 1991, and by the time we got back, the war was in full swing,” she said. Jasna grew up in Croatia and Lupi in Serbia, and when Yugoslavia disintegrated and Croatia declared its independence from the rest of Yugoslavia, a thousand years of hatred between those two peoples re-emerged, including in the arena of sports.
“I didn’t want to represent any new country, I just wanted to play,” she said. “The people from Croatia would yell and scream at me when I played, calling me a traitor. For me, it was just that I grew up in the country of Yugoslavia and represented them. I tell people in the U.S. that it would be like this country splitting up into five or six countries, but one was still the United States. Wouldn’t you want to play for them?”
Reed had given the 1988 bronze medal to her grandmother in Bosnia, but during the war, the Serb army forced people out of their towns with only the clothes on their backs. The bronze medal was lost, with the rest of her grandmother’s belongings.
Lupi and Jasna played in the 1992 Olympics for Yugoslavia, then moved to Belgium to play. After two years, Lupi wanted to go home to Serbia, but Jasna couldn’t face it. The couple split up, but Jasna said they are still close (Lupi now lives in Chicago).
She played professionally in Japan for a year. Professional leagues in Europe and Asia pay well for good players. Crowds range from a few thousand to tens of thousands, and just about every match is televised. “Playing in Japan was decent from a money-making perceptive, but I didn’t know anyone there, and I didn’t feel comfortable,” she said.
Playing in tournaments in the U.S., she met a Michigan businessman who wanted to improve the American table tennis scene by opening a training center. As part of the deal, Reed got an academic scholarship in 1996 to Michigan’s Oakland University and helped run the training center. She eventually earned a degree in political science, got her U.S. citizenship, and played for her new country in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
In Michigan she met and started dating Barney Reed, known as the “bad boy of table tennis.” In 2002, Barney Reed tested positive for steroid use and was suspended for two years. (Reed claims he only used androstenedione from a health food store.) The American also declared that he could beat any player in the U.S. by using his shoe instead of a paddle.
Jasna got her new last name from Barney, but not through marriage. After her divorce from Lupi, Jasna had gone back to her maiden name, which was Fazlic. The problem was that the name is pronounced “phallic.” So while she was dating Reed, she just decided to change her last name to his. Some thought they were married and that Jasna had changed her name to gain U.S. citizenship more quickly. “That was not the case,” she said. “Lupi and I got our green cards in 1994 during a visit, so I was already in the process. And we were never married, that’s for sure. I just wanted a last name that sounded American.”
She’s not a big fan of Barney and won’t talk about him. Barney, however, is quite willing to talk about his former girlfriend. In the 2004 GQ article, he referred to Jasna as a “psycho Commie bitch.”
In the 2004 Olympics, when Jasna partnered with American player Whitney Ping, some people (including Barney Reed) encouraged her to change her name to Pong, thus creating the team of Ping-Pong — and generating publicity for the sport.
“Some people thought this would get us all sorts of publicity, but I had had enough,” she said. “Women always get the name of some man, whether it is your father or husband. That last name for me is not that important. My first name is important.”)
After Jasna arrived at TWU in 2002, she became involved with the Bulgarian-born Razvan Cretu, another table tennis star recruited by the college. So for those keeping score at home, Jasna has represented two countries in the Olympics under three different names and has been involved with at least three male table tennis stars.
“I hate it when they write about my love life,” she said with a slight smile. “I was training so hard and didn’t go out to bars and clubs, so the people I knew were in the table tennis community. This happens in every other business, and no one makes any kind of a big deal.”
TWU first got involved in table tennis in 1968, two years before Reed was born. Bobby Cornett, now the school’s assistant golf coach, was a student and golf team member then. He and a friend heard about a table tennis tournament in Oklahoma and decided to enter.
“We decided to go up there and play, because we thought we were so good,” Cornett said. “But we both lost immediately. We were just casual players in the gym, and we were amazed at the talent level we saw. We weren’t even close.”
Cornett was and still is a competitive guy, so he joined some local table tennis clubs to improve his game. When he joined the golf team as a coach in 1982, he lobbied for creation of a table tennis team at TWU as well. But the administration was against it, in part because TWU was in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which did not sanction table tennis.
In the late 1990s, TWU moved up to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division II athletics — but not for long. Competing at that level was too costly for the small college, and in 2001 it dropped back to the NAIA. At that time, Cornett was able to convince new TWU president Dr. Harold Jeffcoat that a table tennis team would set the Fort Worth school apart from other small-college athletic programs.
“TWU needed something different, something unique for the sporting public in Fort Worth,” Jeffcoat said. “We needed something new and exciting, fast-paced, and where for a modest investment we could be very competitive.”
Cornett made his case: Table tennis is an internationally recognized individual and team sport. It’s not very expensive to implement. And the school could recruit all over the world. As founding director of the European Union Center, an academic research center focusing on European and American trade, Dr. Jeffcoat understood the international positives. Cornett clinched it by promising TWU that “soon, Texas Wesleyan University will have a student on the U.S. Olympic team.”
Cornett knew Christian Lillieroos, a former star player and Swedish national team coach. TWU hired Lillieroos in 2001, and the next year Reed became his first recruit. Two years later she took time off from school to play in the 2004 Olympics — and made good on Cornett’s promise.
Before coming to TWU, Reed was living in Chicago, working as a software programmer for Electronic Knowledge Interchange. The firm was owned by Chicago entrepreneur Robert Blackwell Jr., who was also starting a table tennis manufacturing and tournament promotion company, Killerspin. Reed was unhappy — she’d expected to do more work as a spokeswoman for Killerspin products, and Blackwell, she said, refused to give her leave to play in a tournament. That’s when the TWU scholarship offer caught her attention.
(Blackwell and Killerspin have been in the news lately. The Los Angeles Times reported in April that Blackwell had paid Barack Obama, then an Illinois state senator, a hefty retainer for his legal advice in 2000 and 2001. After that $112,000 contract was completed, Obama lobbied Illinois officials — via letters on his senate stationery — to give Killerspin a tourism grant to help pay for a table tennis tournament. The company got $320,000 in state grants between 2002 and 2004.)
Creating a table tennis program involved some unusual problems for TWU. Neither the NCAA nor the NAIA sanction the sport. Instead it is run by the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association (NCTTA), an organization of nearly 200 schools. Only TWU awards scholarships, which has caused some grousing from other schools. (Missouri’s Lindenwood University will have scholarship table tennis players next year.)
“Some of our competitors don’t think it is fair, but I see it moving in two ways,” said TWU athletic director Kevin Millikan. “The sports landscape is expanding, and so many kids are playing other sports than the traditional ones. So I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the so-called extreme sports get college affiliations. But I also expect to see more schools following us and giving out scholarships for table tennis. It is an Olympic sport and very popular around the world.”
The other controversey for TWU is its heavy recruitment of foreign-born athletes. Of the 18 varsity and junior varsity table tennis players on scholarship, 13 are from 10 foreign countries. Because so many of the foreign-born players have made professional money at the sport (even the small tournaments overseas have payouts), the NCTTA has no amateur status rules like the NCAA. In addition, a student’s years of eligibility are longer than in traditional NCAA sports.
Reed said that one reason she liked the old Yugoslav communist sports system was that the country paid all of its athletes in all sports. There, she said, the top 20 players got a monthly stipend of about $2,500, plus living expenses. Hang around long enough, and they gave you an apartment for life.
Competitors now sign up corporate underwriters and get sponsorship deals as well as tournament winnings. Reed said the top 20 players in the world can earn $200,000 to $800,000 a year. “If you are really talented in this sport, you can have a very comfortable living,” she said. “But that doesn’t go very far down the rankings list. Most of the great players in Europe are making just enough to survive. That’s why this scholarship program here is seen as being very valuable.
“When they gave me that scholarship in Michigan, they couldn’t find American players who wanted it,” she continued. “One reason is that the talent level is not very good. Young American players think they will move up quickly with full-time training, but they don’t realize that full-time training means going against good competition. And that is just not here [yet].
“What we are doing is bringing in the good competition in our program,” Reed said. “I think over time that will ... make the American players better.”
Mark Hasinski agrees. The Indiana-born table tennis player was a child prodigy who was home-schooled by his parents so he could spend more time training in table tennis. He has long been a top-ranked American player and played professionally in Europe before coming to TWU two years ago. In both of the last two seasons, Hasinsky has won the college championship in men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles.
“It was just getting to the point where I needed to make a decision on my future,” said Hasinski, 24. “The school offered me a scholarship, and I could play table tennis competitively at a high level and still get an education.” He is majoring in exercise training.
Having Reed act both as his coach and his mixed-doubles partner is “a little weird,” he said. “But she was a high-level player for so many years, and she really uses that experience to teach us a lot. And she seems to be all about the success of the team.”
Her player/coach status does produce strange situations. Reed and Croatian-born TWU player Ines Perhoc were both in the collegiate women’s finals during the past two years. Reed beat her student in 2007, but lost to her this year. “Sometimes it is kind of hard,” Reed said of her player/coach duties. “There is a line there that you don’t want to cross. I have to be friendly with the players, but I also have to have some authority.
“This year, I just wanted to move through the draw and eliminate as many players as possible so Ines would be in the finals,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t think about your pride. You have to think about the school. If we were both in the finals, that would assure we would have the women’s champion. Whoever that was did not really matter to me.”
To the uninitiated, table tennis is like a box of chocolates — very odd chocolates.
When experts call Jasna Reed an all-around shakehander, for instance, they’re not referring to her technique in meeting people. Professional ping-pong has layers of skills, strategies — and jargon — that would do any football coach proud.
Being an “all-around shakehander” means Reed holds the paddle like she is shaking hands and that she uses many types of shots. Others are “pen-holders,” meaning they circle the index finger around the front of the paddle. Lupi is a “lefty steady two-winged shakehand looper” (he swoops from low to high to put added spin on the ball). Barney Reed is the same as Lupi, though not “steady” (that may explain the steroid ban).
Speaking of which, table tennis, like other sports, has some drug problems – just different ones. The ITTF has now banned the glue with volatile compounds formerly used by players to affix the rubber to their paddles, because they feared much glue-sniffing was going on at matches.
In recent years, American table tennis has also been dealing with infighting that would make skating’s Kerrigan-Harding fight look tame. Last year, for instance, the entire board and executive director of USA Table Tennis, the sport’s governing body in this country, was forced by the U.S. Olympic Committee to step down. An interim board, including Jasna Reed, is in the process of revamping the organization.
“The board was always bickering about anything that did not have to do with table tennis,” said Romanian-born Doru Gheorghe, current coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s table tennis team and the USATT executive director who was forced out. “I think it is time to get younger people involved with new ideas, and Jasna is one of those people. She understands the need for a pipeline to develop new athletes and how to make it more competitive in the U.S.
“I’ve coached her and watched her work with [TWU],” Gheorghe said. “She will be key in taking American table tennis in a new direction. We need to figure out how to make this sport more popular, and money is the key. I don’t understand how people will watch poker on television but will not watch such an exciting game when it is played on the highest level.
“It is a huge problem,” he continued. “Eleven million households in this country have a ping-pong table, yet we haven’t figured out how to take that interest and use it to promote the sport. Texas Wesleyan is doing that. There are people who criticize them for having so many foreign players, but that is a good thing for U.S. players. Increased competition makes all the players better.”
USATT, according to several sources, has been suffering through a battle between the new and old guard. Companies like Killerspin and many of the young athletes want better promotions, lively marketing, and better access to coaching for grade-school and high-school players. The old guard has resisted much of that.
“The business of advancing this sport was just not getting done, and we knew that changes needed to be made,” said USOC official Chris Vadala. “We knew the Olympics being in China this year would give table tennis a lot of attention around the world. We didn’t take advantage of that.”
Things got bad enough that this year the USOC cut the $250,000 annual funding it had provided to USA Table Tennis. Michael Cavanaugh has been loaned by the USOC to serve as interim director of USATT and reform the organization. “There were internal struggles with the table tennis board, and the USOC thought it could be managed better,” Cavanaugh said. The infighting, he said, had “somewhat paralyzed” the organization.
“Everyone in American table tennis is asking the same questions,” he said. “We have to develop a pipeline for young players to get the coaching they need. Maybe we need to lobby more for schools to include this sport in physical education programs. Maybe a bigger presence on TV is the answer. But we all agree that adding more college scholarships is a key point. And Texas Wesleyan is a leader in this area.”
Reed thinks the problems with American table tennis are mostly cultural. “Americans see their sports as football and baseball and basketball, and the others have a hard time getting any attention,” she said. “Ping-pong is just something you do to waste time in the basement. But when you see table tennis on the highest level, it is a sport I think Americans would enjoy. It is very athletic, fast-paced, exciting. But we need to sell this better, market it. The old guard wasn’t doing that.”
In the latest ITTF rankings, only eight American women and six American men made the list of the top 1,000 players worldwide in each gender. Mark Hasinski is the top-ranked American male at number 392.
But the U.S. does have a history with this sport, which was invented about 100 years ago in England (it started out with rounded champagne corks being hit with cigar box lids). American players won many world championships in the 1930s and ’40s, but the last was a mixed-doubles championship in 1956. China has been the dominant force since then.
Ping-pong does have a place in American culture. The American team’s visit to China in 1971 started “ping-pong diplomacy” and was crucial to President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China later that year. Fictional Forrest Gump competed in the sport. Professional golfers Phil Michelson and Tiger Woods love to play in the clubhouse during golf tournaments. Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are big fans. Pearl Jam brings a table with them on tour.
So far, no one has suggested a reality TV show called “Celebrity Table Tennis.” But the approach worked for ballroom dancing, so in the new world of ping-pong marketing, who knows? Flavor Flav taking on Adam Sandler, Eva Longoria against Paris Hilton …
Reed is still playing this summer, getting ready for the U.S championships next month in Las Vegas. But most of TWU’s table tennis players are back in their home countries, and TWU is rehabbing the gym. So tables and competitors are a little hard to find in Fort Worth right now. She does play on Sundays at the Boys And Girls Club across the street from the school on East Rosedale Street. Not highly competitive, but it keeps her in the game.
She will be watching the Olympics this summer closely, especially the top-ranked Chinese team, which might sweep the medals. (Since table tennis became an official Olympic sport in 1988, China has won 26 of the 50 medals awarded.)
Competition for spots on their national team is so fierce that great Chinese players are moving to other countries and gaining citizenship. At the world championships this year, 170 players — about one-fourth of the total participants — were Chinese-born but playing for other countries.
At the U.S. Olympic trials finals this year, only one of the eight American players was of non-Asian descent, and three of the seven were born in China. “The Chinese make us train harder and raise our game,” former TWU player Eric Owens, the only U.S.-born male at the trials finals, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. “But a lot of people are really sick of them coming over and taking their spots on the national team.”
Reed has mixed feelings on the issue. “Most of the Chinese players are very robotic, and I don’t think they promote the sport very well internationally,” she said. “But I think people are missing the point here. If we only had native-born Americans on our team, we still wouldn’t even come close to winning any medals. That’s how far behind we are.”
She and TWU will be at the center of determining what progress the United States makes in the next few years. Gheorghe, the American team coach, likens the situation to that of gymnastics. “Two decades ago, no one in the U.S. paid any attention to gymnastics,” he said. “Then Americans won some medals, and [now] it is one of the most popular sports, especially when it comes to TV ratings.
“We need to find some American who can win and capture the attention of this country,” Gheorghe said. “And Jasna Reed is going to be in a position to make that happen.”
You can reach Dan McGraw at
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