Olympic table tennis trials:

by Allison Stalberg

Mark Hazinski’s story

Table tennis tables took over the floor of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex last week. The ping pong sound as balls bounced between two paddles became center stage as many watched the Olympic Table Tennis Trials.

Players from all corners of the country came to Greensboro for a chance to make the Olympic team. One such player was professional athlete, Mark Hazinski, who arrived with a resume heavy with victories including being a member of the 2004 USA Olympic team, taking the title of champion in the “National Collegiate Table Tennis Men’s Singles” three times, and spending multiple years playing in the professional leagues in Germany and Sweden.

For the past three years, Hazinski had been coaching students at the North Texas Table Tennis Center. He was excited to take a break from coaching and get back into the competition.

Hazinski started playing from the young age of nine when his elementary school in Indiana opened an afterschool table tennis group. Hazinski remembered that in his first recreational tournament, he lost every match but still had a blast.

“It’s like fast paced chess,” Hazinski said, and that was a big part of why he loved the game. “I think I thrive on pressure. I like being in that moment when there’s a high pressure situation and I like to do my best to try and overcome it.”

Just off the plane, Hazinski immediately got to practicing along with the other competitors. On the Thursday, the games began.

As the table tennis pros were a tight knit group, Hazinski knew nearly everyone, including his first opponent, Yanjun Gao.

“We’ve played a few times before and actually I’ve never beaten him,” said Hazinski. “He’s always beaten me very close.”

The match was tight, but Gao beat Hazinski on their 6 th round. Like Hazinski, Gao also coaches. One of Gao’s students, Gail Kendall, cheered him on in the audience.

“Great match,” said Kendall. “It’s a shame they both can’t win.”

Being a coach has its perks as a competitive player.

“Now I’m kind of focused on other players, trying to figure out their weaknesses or how I can improve,” said Hazinski. “While I’m not practicing as much as I used to, I kind of lose my ability to keep my speed but it definitely helps me break down my opponent a little bit better.”

The following day of competition had a twist. Hazinski and Gao were pit against each other again. Who goes up against who is left to chance, but this time Hazinski wished there was a little human intervention.

“I was a little disappointed,” he said.

“I really like to compete but it is fun to compete against different people.”

Hazinski pushed even further this time, putting everyone who watched the match at the edge of their seats. Hazinski lost by two points.

Alden Banks, who came to watch the games from New York, cheered for Hazinski. “Mark played very well,” he said. “That opponent was very quick.”

Gao himself was impressed with Hazinski, noticing that Hazinski changed his strategy based on their match yesterday. “It was a good strategy,” said Gao. His arm got tight from exertion during their match.

“Unfortunately I lost, but I felt I played much better, had a much better chance,” said Hazinski. “At the end he played really well and was able to finish me.”

Hazinski described himself as an attacker. “I think my greatest strength is my serve and first attack. When I can get those things really well, I think I can control the point and execute my game plan better.

“My weakness is probably my defense.

When the other player gets to deal the first attack, that’s usually where I’m not very strong.”

The next day was Hazinski and every other player’s last chance to make the Olympic team.

The luck of the draw didn’t betray Hazinski this time, and put him against a different player. He went up against Michael Landers from New York, a teenage prodigy of table tennis, winning the national singles championship at 15 years old in 2009.

Hazinski got ahead, winning the first three rounds. Landers played hard to catch up, winning the next round. Both players displayed incredible saves. Lander’s even dropped to the floor to save the ball from hitting the ground and still managed to get a bounce on the table.

However, Hazinski came out on top in the 5 th round, winning the match. Despite the joy of victory, Hazinski admitted it was somewhat bittersweet due to their friendship. Hazinski also knew that Landers took time off from college to further his table tennis career.

With a victory under his belt, Hazinski met his next challenge against Allen Wang.

After Hazinski got ahead with the first two rounds, Wang made a shocking comeback until the two were tied. Neck and neck, Wang managed to make the final push into victory. For Hazinski, that made his last game for his Greensboro trip.

Like the other players, Hazinski knew and played against Wang before. Back in December, Hazinski beat Wang in the semi-finals in a Los Vegas tournament, so he saw Wang’s victory in Greensboro as a sort of revenge.

As for the results, Timothy Wang won the first spot on the Olympic team, Sharon Alguetti won the 2nd spot, and Kanak Jha won the 3rd.

“I don’t think these results are too surprising,” said Hazinski. “All of these players have had good results recently and they put in a lot of time training and competing in tournaments.”

As for Hazinski, he moves on and like any professional athlete, learns from his experience.

“I can play with everyone skill wise,” he said, “but I need to work harder on my physical training to keep up my speed and spend more time competing in tournaments to help keep me more comfortable in tight matches.”

The professional player is currently enjoying his return to Texas.

“I always love competing in tournaments, especially ones like this where it is a nice venue and well run, but it is mentally and physically draining, so it’s nice to get back home and back to your regular routine.” !