Among the small community of elite table tennis competitors is a man whose Lazarus-like rebirth has become a symbol of hope for a sport seeking legitimacy in the United States.
At 44, Jimmy Butler, whose career was left for dead because of a debilitating muscle condition, has not only returned to an elite standard of table tennis competition, but he enters this week’s Pan Am and National Team Trials at Texas Wesleyan as the reigning U.S. men’s singles national champion.
His once unthought-of triumph in December was a record 21 years after his last national title and set a new benchmark in his comeback from an eight-year sabbatical.
“It’d be like John McEnroe coming back today and winning the U.S. Open in tennis,” said Gordon Kaye, CEO of USA Table Tennis.
“He has overcome all the odds. To take that amount of time off and to play at an elite level...it’s hard not to root for someone like that.”
The trials begin Friday and run through Sunday at Wesleyan’s Sid Richardson Center. Butler will be vying for one of three spots on the U.S. world championships and Pan Am teams.
Crystal Wang, 12, is the women’s national runner-up and considered the best player in the world for her age outside of China. She will be competing for one of four spots on the women’s world team and three on the Pan Am squad.
Spots will be awarded after tournaments each day.
The last thing Butler was thinking about 10 years ago was a return to competition.
The three-time national champion at the time and U.S. Olympian in 1992 and ’96 was forced to quit in 1998 at age 27 because of muscular degeneration that was harming his spine.
“My muscles were hard as wood; that’s what they told me,” said Butler, a student at Texas Wesleyan in the early 1990s. “Basically, I had the muscles of an 80-year-old. I couldn’t sit without pain.
“That pretty much finished my career.”
All he wanted to do at that point is make sure he could remain functional. A task as simple as walking across the street was difficult.
Butler moved from Georgia to Houston seeking answers — and perhaps a remedy to his problem. He found it and became a disciple to the concept of de-aging muscle under the direction of specialist Kenny Owens.
Owens recommended two hours of therapy each day and estimated that that in about a year-and-a-half Butler would be close to healthy and functional.
After that period, however, “we both realized it would take a much greater effort.”
His issues, Butler said, were beyond “the scope of a human being.”
So together they built an electric, mechanical device designed to push and prod the muscles.
On that machine, the 6-foot-4 Butler spent six hours a day during the week and 14 on the weekends, “morning, day and night.”
He did that for eight years.
“He taught me the concept of how to reverse tight muscles,” Butler said. “Little did I realize it would take me eight years.”
Never once during this darkness did Butler pick up a table tennis paddle. Nor did he watch it on TV. Over time, Butler did get better, but table tennis wasn’t anywhere near his mind.
“I thought I was done,” Butler said.
But in 2011 a buddy sent him a text saying the national championships were on TV. So on a whim, he turned it on.
“It was Timothy Wang, our three-time national champion, playing another guy,” Butler said. “I just watched it and thought, ‘I feel like I can beat these guys.’
“No disrespect to them...it just triggered something.”
The next day, Butler began practicing again. Step by step he has made his way back, not only polishing his game but learning all the changes and idiosyncrasies of players, many of whom weren’t even born when he last won at nationals.
How far had Butler come since those days of physical despair? Instead of his muscles, Butler was most concerned about getting food in his stomach before the final. Anxiety messes with his appetite, he said.
Chinese food did the trick. Butler then went onto defeat teen Kunal Chodri in the final of the men’s national singles championships.
Butler is nowhere near his peak from 20 years ago when he was ranked No. 70 in the world. Today, he’s in the 400s. His success this weekend is by no means guaranteed. “There’s about five or six of us who are pretty even and, depending on who is having their good day, any of us could make or miss the team.”
But Butler is feeling as if he gets better each tournament and that’s a good feeling for a guy who never thought he’d play again.
“Am I close to 70th in the world? No. Can I get there? I don’t know,” he said. “Most people would say no. No one ever quits and gets back in their 40s what they were in their 20s.
“I’m not what I once was, but I keep getting better and better. At what point will I stop getting better? I don’t know, I’m just going to keep playing and find out.”
2015 USA Table Tennis Pan Am and National Team Trials
Texas Wesleyan University’s Sid Richardson Center — 1100 S. Collard St., Fort Worth
Friday — 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday — 9 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday — 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $7 per day; $15 for three-day pass. Tickets available at the door.
For more information, call 817-715-4062.