By Lindsay Toler
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Yet for Sean O'Neill, the Yaos' game-plan has all the hallmarks of success. A member of the U.S. team that competed in Seoul in 1988 the year table tennis became an Olympic sport O'Neill now works as coach and pitchman for the Swedish table-tennis company Stiga. Three years ago he ran into the family at a tournament in San Francisco.
"They were what I call 'can't-miss kids,'" recalls O'Neill, who promptly signed Justen and Alex to a sponsorship deal with Stiga that provides the boys with free paddles, clothes and tables. "They weren't the best players in their age groups, but they were attempting all the right kinds of shots. When you see a kid with those fundamentals, you know it's just a matter of time before they grow into the shots."
O'Neill likens Sheri Yao to Bela Karolyi, the Romanian-born gymnastics coach famous for training a long list of U.S. Olympic athletes, including Mary Lou Retton. In 1996 Sheri qualified to represent the United States in the Olympics held in Atlanta, but bowed out because she'd recently given birth to Alex.
Now, says O'Neill, the Yao boys are frontrunners to represent the United States in the 2012 and 2016 games. "They need to develop and grow a bit more, but right now they're following the route of Olympic champions," he says.
"The single biggest component of their development is Sheri's day-to-day coaching. You can compare it to Peyton and Eli Manning learning the game of football from their father, Archie," O'Neill adds. "Whenever you have a professional athlete teaching their kids the game, you sidestep so much wasted movement, and you can tell the boys enjoy learning from their mom."
Last year the cable station FSN Midwest produced a documentary on the Yaos titled Spotlight: Olympic Dream. David Pokorny, a producer of the show, says the original concept was to shoot a film that could serve as a pilot for a series about parents who push their child-athletes to succeed, no matter the cost. The film turned direction once Pokorny met the Yaos.
"There wasn't an authoritative relationship there at all," says the producer, who tried to get FOX to run the documentary nationwide. "We ran the show locally but ultimately the network decided not to make it a series. They thought it would be difficult to find enough great stories like the Yaos' to duplicate it as a series."
Located along a pothole-ridden stretch of Interstate 70 in north St. Louis, the charter school Confluence Academy each day opens its doors to some 700 inner-city children. Ninety-eight percent of the student body is African-American. Seventy percent qualify for the free or reduced-lunch program.
Based on their environment, the children at Confluence run a heightened risk of dropping out of school and living in poverty. Principal William Polite is determined to change those odds. He hopes table tennis can help.
This summer the Yaos contacted Polite with the idea of introducing his students to the sport of table tennis. The goal, says Jonathan Yao, is for Confluence to be one of the first if not only urban schools in the region to field a table-tennis team. The Yaos hope the sport soon spreads to other city schools.
"It's really a perfect activity for urban kids," says the elder Yao. "It's cheap and easy to learn, and introduces them to other cultures. Hopefully, in the near future, some of these students will be able to compete on the international stage like Justen and Alex."
While Polite had initial reservations about his school serving as a guinea pig for the program, he says those doubts faded when the Yao brothers performed an exhibition match in front of his students.
"The kids were blown away," recalls Polite. "The game requires a tremendous level of concentration, commitment and precision all things that can carry over to the classroom. Unlike other sports, you don't have to be big or fast or strong to play. In that sense, I think it can be a great self-esteem-builder."
So it is on a Tuesday afternoon earlier this month that Polite and three male Confluence teachers gather in the school's gymnasium dressed in shorts and sneakers. Minutes later the fashionable Sheri arrives outfitted in a crisp new Stiga-brand tracksuit and carrying a red faux-alligator purse.
Madam Yao aims to teach Polite and his colleagues the fundamentals of the sport so that they can, in turn, coach the students. But getting there won't be easy. Apart from physical-education teacher Brad Slinkard, who won a few intramural tournaments in college, none of the men in the group has much experience playing the game. What's more, they fail to measure up to Sheri's standards of physical fitness.
For a solid hour, she runs the teachers through drills in which she scoops from a bucket of balls and fires shot after shot at a machine-gun clip, working her pupils' backhand and forehand returns. When that's finished, Sheri lines the men up for wind-sprints.
They're sweating through their shirts when Sheri ends the class with an abdominal exercise that has the men leaning against the gym wall at a 45-degree angle. For 60 seconds the teachers hold the position using only their fingertips for support. Their unusual pose prompts a janitor in the hallway to poke his head in the door and ask, "What you all doing?"