My Journey to Ping Pong Dominance


Published:

Photos: Debbie Fox

 

Rocker, barista and now table tennis champ Kaia Wilson takes us along on her adventures in the days leading up to the Gay Games 2010 in Cologne, Germany as well as her winning moment by sharing her travelogue and personal photos.

 

July 23, 2010
Wow, that was a fun flight!! NYC to Berlin, free beer and Date Night! I love international flights!! So here I am in Berlin, it's SO COOL HERE. I'm staying with my friend Sarah from the band Screamclub, and right now I feel very mellow because I fly with Lorazepam, and it's time for a nap now. Sarah informed me that Berlin is known for it's high fashion and seriously dedicated partiers (perfect for me! Uh, Just kidding!) it's common practice to stay up until the break-a break-a dawn, and there are stories about all weekend long non-stop parties that made me feel, well, just old really—because it sounded something like torture to me—we'll see how I keep up with the kids here...

 Oh, who am I? Hello! I'm Kaia Wilson, I'm a longtime musician. I was in the bands Team Dresch and the Butchies, and now currently focus on my solo career, as well as playing lead guitar in Amy Ray's punk rock band. That's right, I said "LEAD GUITARIST!" Makes me feel so Joe Satriani or something! Ahem...So I'm in Germany to play 5 shows in 4 cities en route to the Gay Games competitions in Cologne. I am a Ping Pong Player—that's right, I said "PING PONG PLAYER!" I've been training for the last year for this huge international gay sporting event, and I'm super nervous and excited. I am going to document this experience in writing and in a video I'll be releasing in the near future, Journey to the Gay Games, so come along, it's pretty cool in here (and by "in here" i mean in my brain...") 

July 24, 2010
Berlin: As is turns out, my old band Team Dresch, has quite a following in Germany. A band called Tocotronic, hailing from Hamburg, wrote a song called "There's Something About that Team Dresch Record" in 1997 and this song gained widespread popularity in the youth punk scene, prompting these kids to go find out about our band. So when I arrive for my first show here in Berlin, the room is small but sold out (which is something like 100-150 people) and people are actually listening to me sing my wistful plaintiff songs...which is a little different than my experience in my hometown of Portland, Ore. (where the crowd is mostly comprised of friends and co-workers heckling me). My longtime friend Debbie Fox is playing drums with me on half my set, and she's also going to compete at the Gaymes in a Triathlon (because she's crazy like that).

July 25, 2010
Berlin part 2: Holy awesome! We played at a squatted property in a forest right inside city limits! There were a lot of trees and dogs here and a real hippie vibe. After the show we just walked down the little highway with all our gear, feeling very vagabond, to the subway—which is an incredible system in Berlin, and we got this photo here, can you believe it? Right here at a big hub of public transportation! Dildo King! Gay Games here we come!

 

July 26, 2010
Hamburg: So in my world of touring Europe (based on the 2 month-long Team Dresch/Bikini Kill tour there in 1996) the venue is almost always at a squat, which is what you call abandoned buildings/spaces that punk rockers turn into functional artist/musician/communal living facilities. In fact, on that tour in 1996 the song "I'm too sexy" by that band Right Said Fred (anyone?) was a big hit and so we titled that entire tour the "I'm too sexy for your SQUAT" tour. Alright, so back to now—tonight we played at a squat that has been in operation since 1982 (Team Dresch played here in '96 too) there was an amazing ping pong party in one of the downstairs room for our aftershow; we played "round the table" style pong (where big groups of people run around the table, you're out if you miss your shot, until just two people are left) until 4 a.m., and Debbie and I felt pretty 'young' about that...eff you Berlin!

 Plus, they had an espresso machine at squat in Hamburg—and I am a barista!

 

July 27, 2010
Bremen:
Another super cool outside squat with incredible ping pong ball decor—summer shows are TIGHT! I love playing outside! Everyone is so NICE and FUN, WTF? Where are the jaded folks I'm used to? Debbie and I are traveling in a rental car on the autobahn (today we clocked in at roughly 72 mph, yeeeaaahhhh) and have been listening to STELLAR jams on this radio station we found...so far my favorite new German song is called "Sexy" by Marius, and it was a huge hit in the late '80s...let me just tell you, the song "Sexy," is not. Not one bit. Certainly "not too sexy," nope.

July 28, 2010
Bonn (just outside Cologne):
Why are the kids putting on/attending shows in Germany so amazing? We went out for bier and falafels afterwards and talked politics with the locals. I definitely ate too much falafel..oops. ugh.

July 29, 2010
(Cologne): Ok, now we've arrived at our hotel in Cologne, where we'll be staying and training for our duration of the Gay Games! The opening cermony is on the 31st, so Debbie and i are gonna kick it around Cologne, rent bikes and cross train (I actually AM doing morning running and stretching, OK?)...um...

July 30, 2010
Cologne is so awesome —terrific restaurants and the tram system is simple, as we travel around the city we are watching it quickly fill up with Gay Games participants, and it's getting PACKED! if you know what I mean...

Let me take a moment to give you some background about why/when/what/where/how's of my decision to be playing Table Tennis in life, and specifically at the Gay Games.

I had grown up playing some ping pong with my family throughout the years, but I officially became re-enamored with the sport of TT (table tennis) while jumping into a game my dad and his friends were playing one day. A year and a half ago I was introduced to proper technique in competitive Table Tennis which in turn lead me down the path of being a TOTAL FREAK NERD PONGER and I haven't looked back since. In preparation for the Gay Games I played 4-5 times a week for six months in three separate leagues and trained with a top-notch coach in Portland, Sean O'Neill receiving about 9 private lessons. I also would, on occasion, just be sitting around my house doing nothing much and "air practicing" (I know, Forrest Gump, it's cool). And I did important cross training as well, such as watching Reno 911, google-image searching "Celine Dion in pantsuit", and tie dying my whites.

I am a LUCKY DOG because in a very Field of Dreams manner I managed to get all my expenses for my training/gear/travel and Gay Games admission fees covered by my amazing friends who sponsored me. Daemon Records (Amy Ray), Brandi Carlile, Gossip, Stumptown coffee (pdx's local best coffee brewery) and Paddle Palace (local Table Tennis (TT) gear store), all got on board to help me cover my costs. I had built relationships over the years with all of my sponsors through my work as a musician and barista, and having become involved with the TT community and buying my gear at Paddle Palace. This personal connection helped me to gain the interest and excitement from my donors about my Gay Games competition. I mean, I'm so grateful for all the ways I received such huge support from people far and wide, and I simply wouldn't have been able to go to Cologne if it weren't for my financial contributors.

July 31, 2010
Walking into the arena where all the participants for the Gaymes meet for opening ceremony absolutely blew my mind. People assembled around huge signs declaring their countries: Germany, Pakistan, Croatia, USA, South Africa (the list goes on and on) and the feeling of ONE WORLD, ONE LOVE resounds...until you stand in line to get beer and then it's back to human nature, line cutting, cussing each other out, I got in a (limp) fist fight with a flamer (just kidding!! but it SOUNDS tough, right?). The athletes here are REAL hard trained athletes, everyone seeking the camaraderie of our shared totally gayness as well as trying to achieve each of our personal bests at our respective sport. And maybe some personal bests at cruising were achieved by some, because there were parties parties parties (I didn't party, because, and I'm serious, I wanted to get a good nights sleep for my competitions) (which I did, thank you.) (don't forget Hamburg! 4 a.m.!)

 

Aug. 1, 2010
First day of competition and I'm effing so nervous you guys! The Table Tennis crew at the Gaymes looked like the TT crew at any clubs in the States—I do think this sport attracts those of us who are a little nerdy, on the fringe, possibly with OCD, definitely into challenging our hand/eye coordination. We are serious athletes who are also looking for a mental challenge—there's a look in our eyes—we are a focused and dorky crew. My competitors were mostly German, and they were also mostly really GOOD. I entered into four events, in level C play (A is top, D is bottom). Today we did both our doubles events. I played mixed doubles with Peter from Munich, he's 62, and a real defensive player (underspin city!) and we got to the semi finals and then lost. We didn't cry. Then in women's doubles by lottery draw I got partnered with the amazing Joyce Stuart and we were a real TT match made in heaven! We won all our matches (barely winning two of our matches against partners from Hamburg, who were fierce and fun to play against) and Gold Medals. um...GOLD MEDALS!! I cried. Tears of joy.

Debbie did her Triathlon today too, which I sadly had to miss because my competitions were at the same dumb time! But she...FINISHED! Which is, technically, her personal best for this events length, so she DID IT!

Aug. 2, 2010
My singles competitions, and I didn't move up in my singles play. I cried. Tears of defeat.There were a lot of players in this event, and by draw my first match of the day was against the woman who would go on to win Gold. I DID win one of my 4 games against her (matches are best of 5), and she was otherwise undefeated in games except to the silver medalist, who also got 1 game on her. I later found out that she had played as a youth and had gained the nickname "THE WALL" because she's tall and a heavy blocker, and nothing seems to get through her. Oh man, time to go drown my sorrows in a delicious glass of Kolsch, the best German bier! Day off tomorrow...a day of rest and laundry.

 

Aug. 4, 2010
Today was my final competitions in the team event. Our team was assembled on site and called ourselves "Team Intercontinental" because we represented several different countries. We actually did really well considering none of us had ever played together. I competed as a singles player and won all but two of my six matches—and we went on to win a Bronze medal! 

Receiving medals, standing on the podium and high fiving all our competitors—sharing this moment where all the training, all the commitment that i had put into getting to this place, had culminated in a Gold and a Bronze—and the thoughts that ran through my head were "thank god, my sponsors were gonna be pissed if i came back with nothing" and "holy shit, here I am."

As I watched the 20 some tables get broken down and carted away, I reflected upon my experience over the three days of all day competition and gay ponger alliance building. I found that I had to remind myself throughout the days, "Wait, everyone here is gay!! Wait! I'm gay!" well no I didn't forget I was gay, but the common ground we felt as gay PING PONG enthusiasts was visceral, an energy that swirled around us even when we were deeply consumed by our competitive drive in the moment of a point. And as in any sport, especially one that is centered mostly on singles play, people get WORKED UP, myself very much included (let's just say that I am an "animated" player!) and one of my personal favorite observations were the expressions from people when they lost a point, and in particular all the cussing in their native language! Of course I tried my hardest to speak German, you know as a nod of respect, and so incorporated "schiesse" into my daily proclamations. I'm just considerate like that.

I exchanged contact information with many new table tennis friends, and walked down the hallway and out of the gym, into the streets of Cologne for one last night of Kolsch consumption and socializing with Gay Games friends. As we got on our tram from the central meeting place to head back to our hotel, in some collective consciousness manner the entire jam packed tram erupted loudly, gayly, into "Que Sera", and as I sang along and looked around at all the smiling gay faces I thought "Dang, i effing wish I had been able to beat the Wall! Argh!" and off we sped...

Aug. 5, 2010
The End...?? I am going to get some serious Post Olympic Depression! It's been fun documenting all these experiences on video, making the Journey to the Gay Games movie, hoping to portray the whole experience of ping pong and the Gaymes in the fascinating, bizarre and captivating a manner as what I saw and lived. Through the lens of the camera, and through the lens of my eyes, I went on a journey, not unlike Homeward Bound, or Babe: Pig Lost in the City...or ooh ooh i know, TOTALLY like Home Alone TOTALLY, so yeah, I went on a journey like a lost little animal or a forgotten Makaully Culkin, and throughout that journey I can securely with full confidence tell you three things I learned:

1) It's rewarding to develop a new skill, work for it, train for it, and bring that new skill to an event that will test it, whether you win or lose, it just sucks if you lose
2) Kolsch! yummy!
3) Ping pong is the best sport in the world!

So there you have it..in the last couple years i stumbled into the world of TT, set my sights on competing at the Gay Games in Germany, and I did it! AND I got medals! AND I made new friends. AND I have new goals in TT now (uh...Gay Games 2014 everyone!).
The Journey continues, and really, the whole time I spent traveling, touring, meeting new people, watching other sports events and competing in my own. The thought that kept repeating through my head with gleeful delight, "HOLY SHIT, HERE I AM," continues as a sort of new mantra. An emergence of a more adventuresome and ambitious me, and who knew? Ping oong would bring me here, but it did, and here I am.

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