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First Serve: My meteoric rise from child prodigy to budding adult superstar in the sports field began at the tender age of 9 one summer when my grandfather made a make-shift ping pong table in his back yard, set up some cans for the net, and invited me to play him. We used two worn sandpaper paddles of indeterminable origin he had located in his garage, and it was game on. My father was a collegiate athlete and, having inherited approximately 20% of his talent, I proceeded to put it to good use. Soon I was the reigning neighborhood champion, having bested not only both grandparents but my older brother as well. Clearly, I was on my way to stardom.

Drill: Once home, my brother, perhaps jealous of my obvious talent, started challenging me to play him on a real ping pong table he had located in the rec-room of our local church. For months we would play every Saturday for hours at a time in his desperation to best his squeaky little brother. While he would occasionally win the odd game, the repetition had propelled me to dizzying new heights of table tennis accomplishments. At the age of 11, I was ready to take on the reigning adult champion. By that I mean, of course, my father.

Skunk: Our parents gave us a ping pong table for Christmas that following year, and it was promptly installed in our dirt-floor basement. My dad had told me once that he was the ping pong champ of his Army base when he was in the service, but I was sure he had never seen the likes of my aggressive game. It was over before it started: 21-0. I had never seen spin before, not on serves, not on backhands, not on forehands. His signature shot was a cut-spin forehand. When it hit on my side, it would jump sharply to the right, leaving me swinging at thin air. Greatness was clearly deferred, but I was now on a mission. My road to world domination led through my old man.

Rally: I began slowly copying all my dad's moves and trying to perfect them. My brother and I continued playing constantly, and I played with friends, so I learned how to attack, spin, serve, play pushers, play blockers; and slowly I got better. When I turned 14, my dad bought me a pimpled rubber paddle used by the Swedish national champion. I was sure that was the final missing piece to my pending greatness. Finally, at age 15, with my new paddle in hand, I won against my father. (Full disclosure: Yes, while I played with an expensive double-ply dimpled rubber paddle, he still played with a cheap sandpaper paddle that had come with the new table). Now the world lay at my fingertips.

Match: My first year of college was to be my coming of age. There was a yearly tournament for singles, where in short order I was in the finals against the reigning champion, an older boy who clearly was not impressed with the skinny long-haired opponent. It was over quickly; in honor of my dad, I finished him off with his signature cut shot from the basement days. Alas, my visions of grandeur came crashing down where at the awards ceremony, when the dean announced they didn't have the money for a trophy, so he gave me a hand-written credit for $10 dollars in the school cafeteria. Soon girls, work, girls, and school permanently derailed my nascent sports career, but I learned one valuable lesson: When life gives you lemons, you sometimes get extra chicken nuggets.

Sey Young is a local businessman, father and longtime resident of Bentonville. Email him at [email protected]

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