IT’S NOT exactly selling ice to the Eskimos but any story concentrating on a Derry man coaching Table-Tennis in China almost begs for a fitting punchline. Except this is no joke.
Michael Wilson reports
Five years ago, Northland Drive native and former Ulster player Sean McAnaney opened a School of Excellence in Beijing for Irish based players living in the Chinese capital and to date more than 100 players from north and south have benefitted from the expert coaching provided.
But Irish players are not the sole beneficiaries of the Derry man’s connection with the world’s leading table-tennis nation with McAnaney being directly responsible for bringing recently selected Team GB squad member Na Liu to Ireland in 2001. The Olympic hopeful, who was granted UK citizenship in 2008, will become the first Northern Ireland based player to compete at the Games when she lines up against North Korea this week.
It is all a far cry from playing table-tennis in St. Peter’s High School or Pilot’s Row but for Sean, who first travelled east back in 1995 for advanced training after representing Ulster, watching the Games in London will be a proud moment.
“My personal coach when I went over in 1995 was the then world no. 3, Chen Xinhua from China and the first hand experience I gained from such a high level player enabled me to pass on a much more advanced level of coaching. I was the first ever Irish player to travel to China for training,” explained Sean.
Almost immediately after that initial trip Sean set his sights on getting a top Chinese player to Ireland for the first time in the history of table tennis in this country and in 1996, having secured sponsorship, he brought Jing Yi Gao to Derry to work alongside himself in promoting the game via a travelling table-tennis road show which visited all of the schools in the Derry area. Jing Yi Gao went on to become the Northern Ireland TT Head Coach and still lives in N.Ireland.
It was through Sean’s connections that Team GB’s new Olympic hopeful was first brought to Northern Ireland.
“I was first introduced to Na Liu through her Mum, who is a leading Chinese coach. She was just 18 years old when I brought her over but she quickly settled into the way of life and has played a major role in the development of Irish table-tennis.
“Her selection is a first for a chinese sports player based in Northern Ireland and it’s really going down well here in China and will hopefully boost our Schools’ profile. When Na Liu first arrived she couldn’t speak a word of English and now, eight years later, she has a great command of the language and has won the hearts of table tennis fans throughout Ireland. Both her Mum and Dad are over the moon at her selection for the 2012 games.”
Sean will be among thousands of avid fans watching the games on television in Beijing but said he is hoping to continue promoting the sport through his School of Excellence which also helped set-up and welcome local junior soccer club, Foyle Harps, for a once in a lifetime visit, something Sean is hoping to build on.
“I have my own coaching staff here in China so we are able to coach all levels of player and all styles of play. I’ve become used to the chinese way of coaching, making it much easier for overseas players coming to China for the first time. With the School of Excellence being in the very heart of Beijing, travelling players also get the chance to visit places like the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square during their stay.
“We are now planning to develop a sports/culture/education programme which would see kids from Derry come to China to improve their table-tennis skills while experiencing a total chinese culture experience.
“I try to get back to Derry twice a year during which time I coach at local schools and youth clubs. On my last trip home four months ago I was very pleased with the response at local schools and youth clubs. There were some very promising players for the future,” he added.