Ping Dynasty

The Yao Family is set on making St. Louis a global powerhouse in table tennis.

To which — in shortened breath — Polite fires back, "We're playing ping-pong. Can't you tell?"

Sheri uses the same thorough approach in coaching her private clients. In any given week, the former professional trains some 70 students at the St. Louis Table Tennis Club, the St. Louis Chinese Language School and her family's Chesterfield residence.

On a recent weekday night, the basement of the Yaos' sprawling ranch home resembles a Jiffy-Pop bag, with dozens of orange and white ping-pong balls flying through the air. Hundreds more roll about the floor. Like a circus ringmaster, Sheri stands in the center of the room, directing the action.

A display case can't hold all of the ping-pong trophies and 
medals the brothers have won in recent years.
Jennifer Silverberg
A display case can't hold all of the ping-pong trophies and medals the brothers have won in recent years.

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As the students scurry from table to table, Sheri offers pointers that the pupils later scribble on the many poster boards that line the basement's walls. The posters serve as reminders for what each student needs to do in order to improve his or her game. A typical list might read: Bend knees more. Keep elbow down. Turn hips. Push the underspin forward. Stand closer to the table.

Standing apart from the middle- and high-school-age students on this night is 55-year-old Dennis Nolte, a bear of a man who sweats through a half-dozen shirts during the two-hour class. Despite being bested by the many pre-pubescent challengers in the room, Nolte boasts that he's improved his game several notches since joining Sheri's class.

"I just got beat by a nine-year-old girl, but my game is getting better," he says. "Sheri is an unbelievable coach. What this family is doing for table tennis in St. Louis is amazing."

Yet not all of the coach's advice lands its mark. As sixteen-year-old Drew Gustafson can attest, Sheri Yao's stilted English sometimes makes things a bit confusing. "Put it this way," says Gustafson. "I understand about two of every five words out of her mouth, and she's made me a much better player. Give me a translator, and my game would probably improve exponentially."

But for Sheri, the obstacle is never her students' commitment to the sport. The problem, more often than not, is with the parents. "In the U.S. everyone has their kids involved in so many things: soccer, swimming, piano," she says. "When the kids get frustrated with something, they quit, and their parents tells them it's OK. They say the important thing is 'to have fun.' But what does that teach? We don't expect the kids to be world champions, but they must take it seriously. We don't want their laziness to affect other students."


As a member of the U.S. fifteen-and-under team, Justen recently flew to Serbia to compete in the World Cadet Challenge Cup. The international competition proved stiff, with Justen struggling to compile a .500 record during a week of difficult play. Still, he did not leave empty-handed.

In recognition of his hard work and sportsmanship, the coaches at the event presented him with a trophy inscribed with the words "Fair Play Award." For Justen, the plastic trophy may as well read, "I went all the way to Serbia, and all I got was this lousy trinket."

Alex, too, had a less-than-stellar October. The ten-year-old was eliminated early from a tournament in California. Although he later won a round-robin competition among the eliminated players, Alex, like his brother, considers the trophy he picked up for the victory a mere consolation prize.

"I should have done better," he laments. "I lost to some people I know I could beat."

On a holiday from school earlier this month, the boys are back in the basement practicing with their mother and Kerry Xiao, a sixth-grader at Parkway West Middle School. Accompanying them is a Chinese professional player in his early twenties who, although he speaks no English, answers to the name James. He is one of several foreign players the Yaos have hosted over the years to serve as sparring partners for Justen and Alex.

Soon Sheri pairs the boys for a doubles game that pits Justen and Alex against Kerry and the professional ringer. The match-up is far from even, with the skilled James able to dictate control of the game. And while they lose the match, the Yao brothers rejoice in a few hard-won points, congratulating each other with an intricate handshake and chest-thump that only they know.

A short time later, Jonathan descends the basement stairs to observe the last remaining minutes of practice. Last week, as Thanksgiving drew millions of Americans around the dining-room table, the Yaos celebrated the holiday at the ping-pong table, with Justen and Alex scheduled to compete at a tournament in Baltimore. Sure, it's a break from Turkey Day tradition, but then that's just what Jonathan has in mind for his boys and the game of table tennis.

"Right now the mindset in international tournaments is that if you draw an American, it's an automatic win," says Jonathan Yao. "Believe me, Alex and Justen will change that stereotype. U.S.A. will be respected."

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