SHERIDAN — Brad Balmer loves ping pong. No, not like you love hitting back-and-forth with your brother in the basement ping pong. Balmer really loves ping pong.
Balmer can even tell you why the game is called ping pong. He can show you with the 1906 table tennis set he bought on Ebay. And he’ll tell you why he calls it ping pong rather than table tennis, although he often interchanges the two names.
“I use ping pong because it’s less intimidating,” Balmer said. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, table tennis. I’m not going to go down there.’ You call it ping pong, and all of a sudden it’s something you play with uncle Johnny in your basement.”
Balmer has been involved with ping pong for 38 years. He started pretty much the same way as the rest of us: grabbing a paddle, a net and a buddy and seeing how many times they could hit it before the ball careened off the table.
What started as a fun little hobby quickly grew into an obsession. The game room at Indiana University — South Bend became a second home for Balmer. In that room he found competitors with equal and oftentimes superior skills than his own, which only increased his intrigue.
“All the good players in the area would converge in the IUSB game room,” Balmer said with wide eyes. “I saw these guys play, and it was so awesome. I’d get like one or two points against them.”
Long before Balmer picked up his first paddle, his hometown had already set him up to jump into the sport on a full-time basis.
There was an old, dusty storage room tucked in the basement of the South Bend (Indiana) YMCA. When John Varga wandered into the room in 1937 and noticed a group of boys surrounding a table, the South Bend Table Tennis Club got its jumpstart.
The club expanded exponentially. There was a rough patch where the club dissolved for about 35 years. But much like defibrillator paddles bring life back to the unconscious, Balmer’s paddles brought life back into the old table tennis club.
Balmer and a group of buddies revived the club in 1991, a “re-birth,” Balmer called it. Two years later, the group moved out of the basement like it was finally time to head off to college. Only college was an 8,000-square-foot facility with 25-foot-high ceilings and brand new lighting.
It became an all-the-time thing for Balmer and the South Bend Table Tennis Club. Training, competing, coaching. The group set up tournaments in some of the biggest venues the county had to offer. They travelled to other tournaments across the globe.
The sport grew in South Bend, Indiana, just as it grew across the country. We’d see Forrest Gump eat ice cream and swing a paddle in 1994. Just last week, NBA Hall of Famer Reggie Miller won a game of ping pong against Grammy-winning rapper Drake, which is a weird sentence to put together.
Balmer has grown since those early ‘90s South Bend days, too.
His interest has shifted from competing in table tennis to teaching others how to compete. That’s what got him to Sheridan. Balmer packed his paddles and moved to Wyoming almost two years ago, because, as he said, “It was time to teach the grandkids how to play ping pong.”
So what did the move to Sheridan mean for Balmer? What did it mean for the South Bend club that he grew up in and helped restore?
Well, the South Bend club isn’t going anywhere, and Balmer remains involved from afar. But here in Sheridan, the ping pong professor is starting over.
Wednesday will be the first official meeting of the Sheridan Ping Pong Club. Balmer hopes to replicate what’s become one of the premiere table tennis clubs back in South Bend right here in Sheridan. With a little help from the YMCA — a place to set up the three tables they group has — the first step is complete.
Now, Balmer said, it’s about people showing up to play. He’s confident they will.
“There will be so many guys, it’s like a new thing,” he said. “Once you make it organized and competitive and they start winning, they’re going to want to get better. And they will. It’s amazing how that works.”
Balmer hopes to attract families. That’s what brought him out to Sheridan, and he thinks it’s a great way to expand the ping pong community.
“There is a demand for some sports here,” he said. “I just happen to be in a sport that I think is conducive for families to play. This is something where the family can actually do something together. Moms and dads can play with the kids because it’s an equal sport.”
Balmer is clearly passionate about the game. If you get him going long enough, he’ll impress you with ideas of big tournaments, doubles leagues and eventually a Sheridan Ping Pong Club facility — 20 tables, 30 tables, even he isn’t sure where the road ends.
“It’ll grow,” Balmer said. “I will get people playing over time. I’ll get a building somewhere. We’ll go full time. We’ll have a coach.”
He also knows it’s going to take some time. He just hopes people give him the time to show them what he’s capable of. He did it in South Bend. Now it’s time to replicate — or expand.
Balmer encourages folks to come to the YMCA Wednesday for some round-robin play at 5:45 p.m. He’ll expand your game. He’ll show you how to win — and lose — gracefully in a very fast-paced sport. He’ll keep you coming back.
“There’s so much more to this sport than just a paddle, ball and table,” Balmer said. “That’s what I enjoy doing, putting the whole package together.”