“I fully understand that table tennis activities involve risks and dangers of serious bodily injury, including permanent disability, paralysis and death.”
That’s what the USA Table Tennis waiver required me to say. I signed it anyway.
And mailed it, a day before the deadline, with proof of my U.S. citizenship, an application for USATT membership, and a $200 registration fee – the four items necessary for entry in the 2008 United States Olympic Table Tennis Trials and Qualifying Tournament at Philadelphia’s Drexel University Jan. 10.
My plan was to enter as a player and write a first-person account of the tournament, at which I could potentially play a future gold medalist. I had never played in a competitive table tennis match. My goal was to score one point. I knew what I was getting into.
When Hunter S. Thompson wanted to report on Hell’s Angels, he joined the gang, and was eventually severely beaten by some of its members. I knew I was in for a severe beating, too.
Granted, my table tennis résumé is more impressive than most: a 77-game winning streak against my older sister in our basement, circa 1995; a first-place, undefeated finish in a hastily organized tournament at my neighborhood pool that same year; and an upset tournament win at my college roommate’s 2004 New Year’s Eve party.
But any naiveté I might have had about competing on a serious level was stripped from me years ago, when I lost the one and only game I played against my inexplicably spry septuagenarian great-uncle. He made it look effortless.
As for the Olympic trials, I knew I had no chance of winning, but decided early on to adopt the opposite mind-set – that I was Rocky, Rudy, a real-life Ralph Macchio auditioning as the ultimate underdog.
Unfortunately, my movie’s training montage would have no training scenes. Instead, it would show me buying the best racket I could find – a $37 Stiga brand “Eurotech” with a hollow handle, endorsed by a former World and Olympic champion and approved by the USATT – and a headband, for effect.
The soundtrack would get dramatic as I looked, for the first time, at the tournament bracket, where, below my name, state, and rating – zero – was my opponent, Wally Green, N.Y., 2,267. Cut to a shot of the USATT website, which describes those rated above 2,200 as “Master Players.”
Segue to three days later, at 2 a.m., less than eight hours before my match. The camera zooms out to show me still at my day job, in an empty newspaper office, finishing a story so I can have the next day off. An hour later, at home, the camera pans back and forth, following my half-open eyes as they scan the USATT’s official rules.
The screen fades to black as I fall asleep. The sequence ends with my alarm clock blaring at 7 a.m. It’s game day.
I arrived at Drexel’s Daskalakis Athletic Center an hour early, at 9 a.m., just as the national anthem ended. I took a quick glance at the first batch of games – which were occurring simultaneously on spacious, matted and completely partitioned courts – and realized I was at the Olympic trials.
Game time. Wally won the coin toss, and opted to serve first. Per regulation, he threw the ball about 6 inches into the air from his open palm, and hit it my way. I delicately hit it back. He returned it. But his shot missed the table. 1-0. Mission accomplished. I tried not to smile.
It became clear during the next few points that Wally knew I was not on his level and was just having fun with me. He offered up lob shots, did trick serves, gave me pointers and even told the table umpire that one of my wide shots had grazed the table.
I scored six points that first game, and a total of 17 in the four-game match. There’s a chance I earned one of those points, returning one of his lobs with an opposite-direction drop shot.
After the match, I took Wally aside and told him I wasn’t really a table tennis player. He laughed and said he had been worried I was hustling him when we warmed up. He realized later that I was just that bad.
After telling me my racket was no good, he told me something else: “I’m the most famous player in the world.” Wally, 28, backed up his claim by telling me that he has traveled to more than 15 countries while playing internationally for the U.S., and that he did the motion capture for the Rockstar Games Presents Table Tennis game on Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.
Wally also told me that at a Super Bowl party this February, he’s going to play a table tennis game against 50 Cent … using his cell phone as a racket.
Apparently I was the one who had no idea whom he was up against. “We had an over-and-under going as to whether it was going to last 10 minutes,” joked U.S. Olympic table tennis team leader Bob Fox, who said the theory on me was that I was either a writer or a guy who “plays in his basement against his relatives or people down the block and thinks that he’s really pretty good.”
Coincidentally, a similarly themed article was being written that day by Associated Press sports reporter Dan Gelston, who approached me immediately following my loss and told me he was working on a story.
“So am I,” I said, to his amusement.
The fact that I wasn’t a real player apparently made him less hesitant to use me as the perfect example of how even novices could try out for the Olympics.
“Take Nick Norlen, of Langhorne, Pa., who was easily swept in his qualifying match against [Wally] Green,” he wrote in the article, which was published hundreds of times online that night and in print the next day. “Nolan [sic] smacked one shot so wide into the netting that separated the playing and practice courts it looked like Mike Vanderjagt’s playoff field goal attempt against Pittsburgh in 2006.”
My first 15 minutes of fame and they couldn’t even spell my name right.
Although it cut the passage about me from the AP article, my local paper did get my name right – in the caption of the large color photo of me they ran the next day. It apparently didn’t go unseen. A few days later, I received a large, hand-addressed envelope from the office of my state representative.
Inside was a laminated copy of the article and photo from my local paper, and a handwritten card: “Dear Nick, I came across this article … and thought you would enjoy having this copy as a memento. Congratulations on getting to the Olympic trials in what is such a difficult event. I wish you much continued success in table tennis. Sincerely, [state Rep.] Chris King.”
And to think I had been ready to retire from competitive play, when 2012 is just four years away. Rocky gets beaten in the first movie. Not in the sequel.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper.firstname.lastname@example.org