Table tennis a life changer for West Duluth youth

It all started 30 years ago at Irving Recreation Center in West Duluth when Sunny Helbacka took some broken tables and restored them. From this, a table tennis program was started.

Table Tennis
Angelo Simone (white hat) is playing table tennis with Ksenia Olsen, a highly ranked table tennis player from Russia. She helps out Angelo and trains the kids with him. In the background, Derrick Winn is practicing while using the Robo-Pong, which is set at various speeds and shoots the ball at the kids to help them get rhythm and learn the sport better. Lauren Lundeen/For the Budgeteer

It all started 30 years ago at Irving Recreation Center in West Duluth when Sunny Helbacka took some broken tables and restored them. From this, a table tennis program was started.

For Helbacka, table tennis was a fun activity for kids and was a valuable experience as well.

"I think it's really effective with kids because they can improve at it with a little bit of work," he said, mentioning that your skill level can leap forward if you just stick with it. "It's a wonderful game and a great aspect game for kids."

In the 1980s, Helbacka started traveling with a junior table tennis team. A standing joke back then was that, before you could travel, you had to beat him. One kid that managed to do so was Angelo Simone.

"Angelo was a kid that just came to the recreation center and said, 'I need to beat Sunny,'" Helbacka said.


Simone beat him and, after Helbacka became a "retired recreation specialist," the upstart kept table tennis alive in the area at another West Duluth hangout: the Valley Youth Center.

The center offers youth a number of recreation activities, including outdoor games, Fear Factor Friday, live music and special trips to Twins games and Valley Fair.

More specifically, it is an after-school program for kids ages 5 to 18.

"We do a lot of recreation, hanging out and keeping kids off the streets and steering them in the right direction," said Simone, who serves as the center's site director.

Table tennis remains one of its biggest and most effective programs with Simone 26 years at the helm.

"When I started working here, I brought the program here," he said. "I was city champion for 14 years 'til one of my students started beating me."

To clarify, table tennis is not the same as ping-pong, Simone said.

"Ping-pong is played basically like how a basement or garage player stands in place and plays the ball," he said. "[With] table tennis, you have to be an athlete because you have to move and be in shape. After a couple of matches you have to change your shirt.


"You take it to the next level."

Helbacka said the speed of the ball picks up in table tennis.

"That ball comes back at you at 100 mph," the one-time mayoral candidate said, "and you've got to decide what to do."

Like Helbacka, Simone has taken various groups of a dozen students and traveled the country for the Table Tennis Junior Olympics.

Many players are from lower-income and single-parent families, Simone said.

No matter the student, everyone who participates gains -- a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by Simone.

"Some kids were good," he said, mentioning that they could travel with him only if they kept their grades up. "Some kids were getting D's and C's, then got A's and B's. It changed a lot of lives of the kids."

As Simone has said, today table tennis is still changing lives and it's a way to "control your own destiny."


"Some kids took it to the next level," he said. "Kids that come here pick up a paddle and I give them free lessons."

Table tennis is becoming bigger and bigger everyday.

As Helbacka said, "In many ways I think we ended up being the great secret of Duluth."

Balls of fury

From July 23-25, Valley Youth Center will be hosting a table tennis tournament at the DECC. At the tournament, many top players from around the world will be in town to watch and participate.

"This guy from Belgium ranked at one time in the top 30 in the world, he's coming to our tournament," director Angelo Simone said. "It's exciting to watch one of the top players in the world come to Duluth and play."

At the tournament, there will be events for everybody; everyone will have the opportunity to play.

What started back in the 1980s has become an effective program for students and families. The Valley Youth Center is open to anyone as long as they're between the ages of 5 and 18 (or older if in high school).


At the center, they have an open-door policy for all children. Simone said that they don't make kids stay in the center; they can come and go as they please.

"Everyone knows that this is where you come to play," Simone said. "I play because I just love the game. I love teaching it and I love watching the expressions on kids' faces when they hit it back."

This is Duluth freelance writer Lauren Lundeen's first piece for the Budgeteer. She can be reached via .

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