Jimmy Butler is American table tennis’ past, but he might well be its present and future.
However the story of his return to competition ends, the 44-year-old Butler is by no means passe after updating his improbable comeback with another achievement.
Butler this weekend clinched his fourth career berth in the Pan American Games with a tournament victory at the U.S. National Table Tennis Trials at Texas Wesleyan’s Sid Richardson Center.
In addition to Butler, Timothy Wang, the top-ranked player in the U.S. and No. 1 seed at the trials, and Kanak Jha will represent the U.S. at the quadrennial Pan Am Games in July in Toronto as well as the World Championships in China.
Former Texas Wesleyan player Yahao Zhang, who lost to a determined Wang in the men’s singles final on Sunday, also earned a position on the national team headed to China.
Butler, who retired in 1998 because of a debilitating muscle condition but returned to play in 2011, is a two-time U.S. Olympian fresh off his fourth national singles championship in December.
“They all have a different flavor,” said Butler, when asked if this berths on the national team were any more special considering his journey. “It’s very easy to have a good performance [at nationals] and fall. It happens to so many people; it’s happened to me many times.
“To come in and have a good performance here just showed a level of consistency I’ve been striving for.”
Positions on the teams were decided by tournaments on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Winners each day left the field, leaving others to vie for the remaining spots.
Amy Wang, a 12-year-old phenom, made the women’s team competing at the World Championships. She’s the only player on all three national teams.
After a self-described dreadful first-round loss on Friday, Butler won on Saturday, advancing through the bracket with four wins, taking the championship in five games of the best-of-seven (each game to 11, win by two).
Losing early is an advantage, Butler said. There’s nothing worse than expending all the energy it takes to advance to the semifinals or finals and then lose only to have to return the next day and try again.
Wang proved on Sunday why table tennis is not a good betting sport.
He struggled in a loss on Friday and said he encountered some bad luck on Saturday, but Wang was clearly the most dominant player on Sunday, winning three times in four-game sweeps, including in the final against Zhang.
Facing game point, Wang held off Zhang three times on game point in Game 4. Zhang couldn’t do the same, finally relenting to the Houstonian 17-15 in a game that demonstrated the sport’s high velocity reputation.
“You never really know what’s going to happen,” said Wang, a 2012 U.S. Olympian. “You just do your best and hope everything works out for the best.
“Today, I managed to pull it out and I also got a little lucky in that Game 4.”
Butler also heads back to his home in Houston to begin preparations for the World Championships. He said he was surprised by winning this weekend.
Butler said he remains unconvinced whether more surprises are forthcoming at the World Championships beginning in April, but he’s convinced he is doing something right and that makes him as excited as his competitors who are almost all nearly half his age.
Winning “tells me my preparation and practice are going right. When you lose you tweak things. When you win you say ‘I’m doing something right.’”
U.S. table tennis players who earned spots this weekend on the Pan Am Games and World Championships:
Pan American: Timothy Wang, Texas; Jimmy Butler, Texas; Kanak Jha, Calif.
World Championships: Wang, Butler, Jha and Yahao Zhang, Texas
Pan American: Jiagi Zheng, Calif.; Jennifer Wu, N.J.; Lily Zhang, Calif.
World Championships: Zhang; Amy Wang, N.J.; Judy Hugh, N.J.; Prachi Jha, Calif.