Parents set table, now son steps up Todd Sweeris: The University of Maryland junior long has played table tennis in the shadow of his more famous parents. Now, with a berth on the U.S. Olympic team, he's establishing a reputation of his own.

April 09, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE -- Todd Sweeris knows what the offspring of famous athletes go through growing up, what it might have been like for Grant Hill or even Ken Griffey Jr. In a way, Hill and Griffey probably had it easier.

They only had one parent's legacy to follow.

Sweeris had two.

"It was great having parents like that," Sweeris said recently. "By the same token, whenever I would go to tournaments, people would ask me how my parents were doing, why they weren't still playing. That kind of psychologically wears you down. I don't want to be better than my parents were, but I don't want people telling me I'm not as good as they were."

Dell and Connie Sweeris were considered among the top men's and women's table tennis players in the country during the 1970s. They shared more than two dozen national championships, including four mixed doubles titles. Both are in the sport's hall of fame.

But because table tennis didn't become an Olympic sport until 1988, neither Dell nor Connie Sweeris was able to do what the youngest of their two children recently did: make the U.S. Olympic team. It was a dream that had its roots in the kitchen of the Sweeris home in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"I had a little paddle, and we had a refrigerator that was on one of those hard linoleum floors," recalled Todd Sweeris, 22. "I used to hit the ball against the refrigerator for hours."

Said Connie Sweeris, who retired from competition after Todd was born in 1973: "He always liked anything that involved a bat and a ball. He was a pretty good baseball player. He won a tennis medal when he was 7. But he always seemed to want to go back to table tennis."

These days, Sweeris isn't practicing his backspin serves and topspin forehands off the refrigerator. When he's not attending classes at the University of Maryland, where he's a junior accounting major, he's usually here at the National Table Tennis Center.

The proximity of the center to the College Park campus, as well as the coaching he receives from Cheng Yinghua, played heavily into Sweeris' decision to attend Maryland. As a member of the national junior team, he drove with a friend to Augusta, Ga., a hotbed for table tennis and home to several world-ranked players.

"After we were in Augusta, we decided to drive up to Maryland," said Sweeris, the 1990 national junior champion. "I never left."

Said Cheng, who played 10 years for the Chinese national team and is still ranked 33rd in the world: "Right now, he's playing very well. He's almost beats me."

Another of the attractions to Maryland was that Sweeris could become anonymous again. While the basketball team was going to the Sweet 16 in two straight NCAA tournaments before this spring's early exit, Sweeris and his club teammates were leading the Terrapins to three straight national championships.

The only recognition the team received was because one of its members, Andre Scott, is a paraplegic. Scott recently made the U.S. Paralympic team. Few of Sweeris' fellow students said anything when he returned from making the Olympic team in early March.

"I really don't want people to know," said Sweeris. "But I'd like my professors to know [why he was missing class]."

It was Sweeris' second try at qualifying for the Olympic team. In 1992, he finished eighth, but had beaten some highly ranked players along the way. He figured that he'd get another chance JTC in 2000, "but this is the one I wanted to go to," he said. "I don't think you can have a better experience than to compete in the Olympics in the host country."

Sweeris said he hopes to use the experience in Atlanta this summer as a springboard to play professionally after graduation, either in Japan or Sweden, where players get their expenses picked up by teams and some make more than six figures in salary, endorsements and tournament winnings.

"Some guys are paid $200,000 to $300,000 a year; there are even a few millionaires," said Sweeris. "I think I could make between $15,000 and $20,000 over expenses. I never thought I'd be interested in that. But by graduating in 1998, I could play a couple of years over there and then get ready for 2000."

Unlike the U.S. women's team, which is exclusively made up of Asian-born players, Sweeris is one of two American-born players on the three-man team. (The other is Jim Butler of Augusta.) "I think our team leaders, our executive director and our sponsors were ecstatic," said Sweeris. "It helps table tennis because of the stigma that it's an Asian-dominated sport."

Eventually, Sweeris will have to do what his parents did -- go on with the rest of his life. He might even follow in his father's footsteps again: Dell, who played into the early 1980s, is a certified public accountant outside of Grand Rapids. His son's performance at the Olympic trials in Flint, Mich., was a homecoming of sorts.

After winning his first 11 matches and sewing up his place on the team with a win over No. 2 Khoa Nguyen, third-ranked Sweeris said he had trouble getting focused for his final two matches against fourth-ranked Butler and top-ranked David Zhuang. "I went completely flat," said Sweeris. "For me to play well, I've got to keep up my edge. You only peak one or two times a year. I definitely peaked for the Olympic trials."

Said his coach, Cheng: "Everyday, he works very hard. And he thinks. Sometimes, you tell players one day, they forget the next. Todd remembers everything. He asks a lot of questions."

There is one question Sweeris doesn't ask. But plenty of people who knew his parents and saw him play will tell him anyway. Such is life as a legacy.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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