By Francesca Normile
Artist and table tennis enthusiast Walter Us stands in the middle of his living room — with his paintings on the walls and his acoustic guitar leaning against a chair in the corner — demonstrating the various grips and swings possible with a table tennis paddle.
“The Chinese got the pen-hold to a high art,” says Us, gripping the paddle upside-down, holding it in a similar fashion to the way one would hold a writing implement.
“I shakehand,” he explains, holding the paddle, rather unsurprisingly, as if he were doing exactly that. “There is more versatility with the shakehand. Most people use it now, and if they didn’t before, a lot of them are switching over.”
Us, a Sag Harbor resident of 15 years, has been in love with the game since he was a boy. Growing up in a refugee camp in Slovenia after W.W.II, Us recalls that there were a lot of different types of people around and a lot going on.
“At that time in Europe, table tennis and soccer were very popular. I remember when I saw table tennis for the first time I thought, ‘I want to do that!’,” Us laughs. “And I could barely even walk at that point. I was just chasing the balls around.”
In Us’ kitchen he keeps a black and white photograph of himself as a little boy, sitting on the ground with two little girls, holding a table tennis ball in his small hand.
“I was always a doer,” explains Us. “When I got to the United States it was 1952 and I was seven years old. Table tennis was not as available as it had been. In Slovenia it had been cultural — table tennis, skiing, poetry — it is what they are known for. They are a small country, but they are very compulsive.”
Moving around the country in the years that have followed, Us found lulls in how frequently he was able to play table tennis. Whenever it was available, however, Us has pursued the sport enthusiastically.
“I was in a number of tournaments when I was in Kentucky and while I was at school in Cambridge, I used to play at Boston Table Tennis in Kenmore Square and at the tables at M.I.T.,” Us recalls. “I remember at Boston Table Tennis there was a man named Benny who was diagnosed with polio when he was 13. He took up table tennis to increase his mobility. The man couldn’t move his left leg but no one could get anything by him.”
With an incredible collection of memories, Us spoke of the importance not only of pursuing a sport, but of having places for people to gather and spend time together.
“America does not have enough outlets to socialize, to meet people,” he says. “ In Italy, the piazza is an extension of your family. It is not so isolated in Europe.”
But that is changing quickly on this side of the Atlantic. Not only have several clubs cropped up in Manhattan, but East Enders now have Hampton Table Tennis in Water Mill to visit as well. Founded by David Osiecki and Kent Feuerring, Us is an instructor at the table tennis clinic.
“It is really a top notch place,” says Us. “Very professional equipment and a nice, friendly atmosphere. It is good to have a place for people to come together.”
While getting together for a casual game is a great way to socialize, Us explained how table tennis (don’t call it ping pong) requires commitment.
“It is a very intense game if you want it to be,” he says. “I think that that is the connection in all the things I do. I love that kind of discipline. Whatever it is — painting, guitar, skiing, table tennis — I take it on as a serious occupation. There is a meditation to that. It is fun of course, but the benefits go way beyond fun.”