By: Alan Brads
Table tennis players from Cedarville who volleyed plastic balls for hours every week flooded the rec center’s exercise room, chatting excitedly about who they thought had a chance to win second place in the intramural tournament.
“Second place?” said the intramural supervisor. “Why not first?”
“Not today,” said one contestant simply. “Ren’s coming”
Growing up in Japan, Ren Murakami played table tennis as often as he could, but not as often as he would have liked.
Murakami lived with his single mother, who often couldn’t afford to pay for expensive table tennis camp fees, which are all but necessary to compete at the highest level in Japan’s competitive table tennis scene.
His dedication to his Christian faith would also make his road more difficult.
“You will hear that 1-5% of people in Japan are Christian,” Murakami said. “In reality, 99% of those are in cults.”
This cultural rejection of Christianity meant that missing Sunday morning table tennis practice was not acceptable, and Murakami was unable to compete on the A team at his high school, which was a table tennis powerhouse in Japan.
That didn’t stop him from pursuing excellence.
He first picked up a paddle at age 9 and fumed over his inability to beat his friend.
“He was destroying me,” Murakami said, “And kids don’t want to be losers.”
He took that desire to the extreme, practicing endlessly, determined to beat his friend.
After eighteen months of practicing daily, he won consistently.
Murakami combines his affinity for table tennis with his education in engineering to gain an advantage.
“You can spin the ball and the trajectory will be different,” Murakami said. “Even just a gyro-sidespin, the center will actually shift a little bit, and thinking about that and developing my own serves to make it complicated.
Murakami Sharpies lines onto his practice balls to help him visualize and perfect how he spins the ball.
Controlling the physics of the ball is the key for Murakami, whose greatest strength is his serve.
“The unique thing about my serve is after I touch the ball I lift my elbow up,” Murakami said. This large movement is a feint to surprise his opponents, and once they realize he only brushed the ball, it’s too late.”
“It’s a total fake,” he said.
That feint is Murakami’s go-to serve, but he can lovingly recount his expansive bag of tricks utilized on his serves. It took him from the ages of 13-15 to perfect just the fundamentals of his serve.
During his first two years at Cedarville, Murakami lived in the Hill, which is equipped with a table that he practiced on daily by himself for two hours, or until curfew, whichever came first.
Murakami’s goal as a player for 2023 is to reach a USA Table Tennis ranking of 2000, considered a significant landmark in the sport. He currently stands at 1930, good enough to rank 25th in the state of Ohio.
Despite his clear talent, he’s still experienced frustration with the sport.
“I’ve thought about quitting like a hundred times,” Murakami said. “When I can’t win, or keep making the same mistakes, or I get nervous or don’t know how to beat the mental stress, or people I used to beat are beating me, I’m done.”
This frustration drove him toward a new outlet.
Murakami began his coaching career in Japan at 16 when his former club coach invited him to help train younger players. He realized as much as he loves playing, his real skill lies in teaching.
After spending years as a player in the table tennis org without ever dropping a single match to a fellow student, Murakami took on a new role this year as a de facto coach.
Murakami takes everything about table tennis seriously. He only coaches players who attend consistently.
“If someone is out, then in, then out, then in, it’s not worth it, they won’t improve,” Murakami said.
True to form, he takes practice seriously. “A lot of people do practice that is enjoyable,” Murakami said. “But [just because something is] enjoyable doesn’t really mean it’s necessary and super important.”
He says that serving and receiving should be practiced more than anything, regardless of how boring it may be. In true coaching fashion, he always focuses on the fundamentals.
“You’re going to serve half the time,” Murakami said. “The other half you will receive. That’s what you do 100% of the time.”
Murakami took two freshmen, Elijah Evers and Luke Ring, both members of Cedarville’s table tennis org under his wing this fall. Both won a tournament medal in Columbus this spring.
“Those two were really committed and practiced hard,” Murakami said. “I know it wasn’t easy because I am very strict.”
Ring described Murakami as energetic and encouraging most, but not all of the time.
“He’s intense when we’re getting ready for NCTTA competitions,” Ring said. “He makes us put in the effort and be serious about it.”
Ring’s relationship with Murakami blurs the line between a coach and a friend, as they experience everything together, from intense practices to road trips in Murakami’s notoriously unreliable cars.
“The best parts of being coached by him are his passion for the sport itself, and that he cares for our skill level,” Ring said. “When I won my first medal he was super proud of that. That’s what he wanted to see.”
Murakami began giving private lessons this spring. At the tournament in Columbus, an opponent observed him coaching Evers and approached Murakami requesting private lessons, a service for which he earns $40 per hour.
Over the years Murakami has found that his true passion for table tennis lies in coaching, but he still has some talent left in the playing tank.
All his friends at the intramural tournament were right. Murakami did win the intramural singles tournament, just like he won each of the others since he arrived on campus.
Alan Brads is a junior journalism student and frequent contributor for Cedars. He enjoys playing the drums, speaking Spanish and watching Buckeye football like his life depends on it.