There are many characters roaming the grounds of Geneseo, but you may be surprised to hear that one of them is a professional pingpong player. Sophomore Phillip Woo is a down-to-earth math major with a surprising talent: playing table tennis at a level far surpassing recreational.
Born into a half-Malaysian, half-Taiwanese family, Woo grew up and lives in Flushing, New York. Like most students who hail from downstate, Woo explained that he originally thought the transition to rural life would be hard. He admitted that the welcoming nature of the Geneseo community had a huge impact on his outlook on the small town.
“I thought it would be rough because I imagined Geneseo to be surrounded by farms and cows,” he said. “However, the transition was great because people up here are all friendly and hospitable. The only thing I hate is the ride up here.”
For many college students, pingpong is just a fun activity to blow off some steam. For Woo, however, it is an intense sport with tough competition. Woo recalled playing for fun with his dad as a 12-year-old and quickly learning that he had a knack for the game. While Woo wasn’t sure that he could take his skills to the next level, his father’s support gave him the push he needed.
“He realized that I was alright,” Woo said. “So he found a coach for me and it worked out.”
Since then, Woo has competed in countless pingpong tournaments across the country and has tallied an impressive 25 awards over his seven-year career. Success doesn’t come easy, however. Woo recalled one of his proudest moments during his third Mayor Cup run in New York City, where he was the underdog. “The first two years I always got third place—which is just a medal—so I was really disappointed and first place was a really big trophy. So I told myself, ‘Before I graduate I’m going to try and win that trophy,’” he said. “Junior year I finally won, surprisingly, because I beat people that were much [higher in ranking] than me.”
To Woo, pingpong isn’t always about cheering fans and winning trophies—just like every other sport, there are highs and lows. He explained that he hit such a low point during a recent visit to California for training to prepare for the United States Open event.
“It was pretty expensive and long,” he said. On top of the extensive duration and cost, Woo partially injured a lateral muscle and lost every round when training. “It was a waste of money because you have to pay to join the tournament and to be trained, so I was pretty disappointed.”
Woo’s roadblock in California made him realize that with limited training resources and a busy academic schedule, he couldn’t successfully devote the time and energy to the sport that he wanted to. He still has a goal to reach the Olympics, but is currently focusing on his studies here at Geneseo.
Despite the perks of having a freer schedule, Woo admitted that he misses playing in such a competitive atmosphere. “[Pingpong] was intense; usually I was very nervous … I miss the feeling and the environment—people clapping, hearing a lot of people scream when a player scores a point,” he said. “I miss that.”
Woo added, however, that he appreciates the fact that he does have a chance to experience the more laidback vibe of recreational pingpong at Geneseo. He noted that he just likes to play for fun on campus, but if he’s with his friends, it doesn’t last long. “My friends will just spill it out and some random people will just come up to me and say that they want to play me,” he said.
Woo expressed his hopes to start his own pingpong club on campus and is currently in the process of making that dream come true. “I hope that I can teach people the sportsmanship and the actual game itself,” he said. I want it to be more widespread, not many people know about pingpong, they think it’s just a hobby … It solidified my mentality. It helps me with my studies and when I’m down, I always know that I should try harder to overcome the obstacles.”
Woo encouraged students of all talent levels to try their hand at the game. “You don’t really hear people playing pingpong as an actual sport and I think that’s pretty unique about it,” he said.