Carlos Ko, 40, has traveled the world, playing table tennis — and taking steps at mastering the game — at nearly every stop along the way. But these days Ko finds himself making his home in Albany, where he now resides with his wife, Chelsea, and runs his business, Homeboy Jewelry, which looks like your average jewelry story upon first glance — that is, until you walk to the back of the store. It’s there that you’ll find a whole other world filled with green and white tables, racquets, posters of his table tennis heroes and trophies to document his numerous accomplishments. But Ko, the 2010 U.S. Open champion, is still far from where he wants to be, although in a matter of days, he may very well return to the Good Life City from the 2011 U.S. Nationals as the top table tennis player in country.
Carlos Ko has had a lifelong waltz with table tennis, a dance that has driven him, cheated him, beaten him and inspired and enlightened him.
And he loves it more now than ever.
It’s a journey that began in the basement of a Korean church in Paraguay and wrapped its way halfway around the world and back again with stops in South America, New York, Colorado and the edge of 38th parallel — and has landed him here in the Good Life City, where Ko is finally tasting a bit of the good life.
After more than three decades of trying to find his place in a sport that seemed to tease and taunt him, leaving him feeling jilted and betrayed, Ko has arrived with a new-found confidence and a talent that has emerged from the last place he would have expected.
He will take all that and more this week to Virginia Beach, Va., where Ko will compete in the 2011 U.S. Nationals.
“My goal? I don’t even know,’’ said the 40-year-old Ko, who now lives and works in Albany as the owner of Homeboy Jewelery on West Gordon Avenue. “I have always wanted to be the best, the very best. And I’m playing like I have never played before.
“I have never felt this kind of confidence before.’’
Winning the nationals this week would culminate a late and unexpected surge for Ko, who rediscovered his table tennis skills after discovering hardbat table tennis, a new and popular form of the sport that uses a non-padded, no-sponge hard paddle.
Simply put, Ko is a
master at hardbat — one of the best the sport has ever seen.
After competing in table tennis all his life, Ko was thrust into the world of hardbat a little more than a year ago when he entered the national hardbat tournament on a lark. He was competing in the U.S. Open Table Tennis Tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they were also holding the nationals for hardbat table tennis.
Ko, who finished third in open singles over 30 nationals that weekend, had already entered a couple of table tennis events, and he discovered it would cost him only $10 to add the hardbat tournament. He had never played hardbat, but figured for $10 why not?
“I didn’t even have a racquet,’’ Ko said during an interview at his jewelry store with The Herald earlier this month. “My friend told me he would sell me his hardbat racquet for $130. I didn’t have the $130, so he told me I could borrow it. He laughed and said I would be giving it back to him after the first round any way.’’
Ko still has the racquet.
Ko dazzled the crowd that kept growing with every match he played as he upset one star player after another on his way to winning the hardbat national title.
“Everybody thought I would lose the first round,’’ Ko said. “Everybody came to laugh at me. They were saying the (first) guy (I played) was going to crush me.”
Instead, he crushed the competition — one by one.
“When I picked up the racquet it just felt like magic in my hand,’’ said Ko who lost the first two games of his first match, then — as he began to learn the sport on the fly — came back to win the final three games to advance to the next round. “I beat the guy, and everyone was saying, ‘Who is this guy from Georgia?’ ”
That tournament changed Ko’s life.
“It’s like hardbat was meant for me,’’ he said. “I picked up the racquet and felt an energy. It was like Superman putting on his cape.
“It’s different. It slows down everything. I have more time. You can’t generate a lot of spin, so it’s easier to manage, and my rallies are longer. That was always my weakness in table tennis. I had a great serve but my weakness was my rally.’’
Ko not only won the national hardbat title, but has since been consistently ranked in the Top 3 of hardbat players in the nation. He’s also the defending hardbat champ at the Georgia Games, where his wife, Chelsea — who he taught the game to not long ago — finished second in the hardbat competition.
“I’m kind of disappointed he is not playing for the hardbat title (this week in Virginia Beach),’’ said Alberto Prieto, chairman of the National Hardbat Committee of the fact Ko will now attempt to undertake a new challenge and become the best at table tennis’ original form that uses a soft, padded racquet. “I think he can do well in both, but I think he could win the hardbat title. I think he wants to focus on the other (table tennis).
“He’s one of the top hardbat players in the country,’’ he added. “He won the U.S. Open title in 2010 when he beat (nationally renowned table tennis star) Trevor Runyan, and (Runyan) had won the title in ‘07, ‘08 and ‘09, and everyone thought he was unbeatable (before) Carlos beat him.’’
New kid on the block
Ko’s success in hardbat spilled over to table tennis, and that’s one reason he feels he is playing better now than ever, and why he expects to make noise at Virginia Beach in the U.S. Nationals this week.
“After experiencing success in hardbat, I started believing in myself,’’ Ko said. “Something was finally paying off. Instead of being nervous and stressed at tournaments, I enjoy the game much more than ever before. And the other thing that happened was I was just in the zone. I became enlightened.’’
It’s been a long road.
He was just a kid, a lonely kid who was trapped in a world where he didn’t know the language and didn’t care to learn it when he first discovered table tennis. Ko was born in South Korea, but when he was 12 his parents moved to Paraguay, where — even with a large Korean population that inhabited the South American country — Ko and his twin brother Edward felt like castaways on their own island.
“We would go to school and just sleep in school, because we didn’t know Spanish. We had no idea what the teacher was saying so when the teacher started talking we just put our heads down and fell to sleep every day,’’ Ko said. “We didn’t know anyone, and we didn’t know the language, and there were no bilingual programs.’’
He found a sanctuary in the basement of a Korean church, where a table tennis table was set up. He and his brother slipped in and began playing the sport that would change Ko’s life.
“I was crazy about it,’’ Ko said. “I started playing, and played every day, 365 days a year. Then I joined the No. 1 club in Paraguay and I would take a bus an hour each way every day, and play three-to-four hours a day to get better.’’
By the time Ko was 16, he was won the Junior National Championship in Paraguay, then traveled to Peru, where he was told he couldn’t compete for the South American title because he wasn’t a citizen of Paraguay.
The following year his family moved to New York, where Ko said he made up his mind he would become the best table tennis player in America. He and Edward became instant successes, winning local and region junior tournaments. As a result, both were invited to the nationally renowned Eastern Training Center in Maryland, where they went to school and trained day and night at table tennis for two years. Ko then spent his senior year in high school training at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and finished third in Junior Olympics that year.
“After I graduated from high school I was ranked 30th in the nation,’’ said Ko, who is currently the No. 5-ranked hardbat player in the U.S., and No. 99 at table tennis. “I wanted to be the No. 1 player in America. That was my goal. Then I met Yoo Namkyu, who was the Korean national champ.
“That’s when my miserable life began.’’
Detour to despair
Ko said that he moved to South Korea on Namkyu’s promise that Ko could train with the South Korean pro team.
“I had three choices at the time,’’ Ko recalled. “I could have trained in Germany. I could have trained in China, or trained in Korea. I made the wrong turn. When I got to Korea, (I found that Namkyu) had lied to me. He could not face me. He had no power to get me on the team, and I had nothing.
“I then met Lisa Lee, who was one of the big names in Korea table tennis. She told me my level was about the same as a middle school player, and that I would be better off training with a high school team to raise my level. I played for Zion High School for one and a half years to improve.’’
Then the government stepped in.
“I got a letter telling me that I would have to join the army in order to stay in South Korea,’’ Ko said. “I spoke to the army table tennis coach and he promised me I would be in his division, and I thought I would join the army and keep improving my level of play while in the army.’’
Ko could have returned to the U.S., but joined the army instead. He said when he graduated from boot camp he was certain he would be assigned to the division with the South Korean team where he have the opportunity to continue improving his table tennis skills.
That never happened. He was crushed.
“They sent me to the border patrol at the 38th parallel,’’ Ko said. “My hope was always to be the No. 1 guy in the U.S., but at that point I gave up all hope. I had left the U.S. I had left my family behind.
“It was the worst moment in my life.’’
Ko feared for his life daily and lived an isolated existence, serving six months at a time with no breaks for more than two years, walking a thin line every day along one of the most volatile strips of land in the world, knowing war could break out at any time.
“I cried out to God, ‘Why did you do this to me,’ ” Ko said. “I hated everyone in Korea. I am over that now, thanks to the grace of God, but that’s how I felt then.
“You were so alone there. There are only about 20 in (the platoon). You don’t see anyone. No women, nothing. It was horrible. You could be killed any minute. I’m lucky I’m alive.’’
When the nightmare ended 26 months later, Ko felt admitted he still felt lost. He got a job in a bookstore in South Korea and also taught English lessons for more than a year before finally returning to New York.
“When I got out I had no place to go, but in 1997 my exodus ended. I was 27 when I came back to New York. I still wanted to compete in table tennis, but I didn’t want to embarrass myself. I was a much worse player than I was before,” he said. “The kids I would beat early were all national team members (by now). The first time I played, I lost to a guy I would always beat all the time before. I could see him look down on me. My time was forgotten. I went to a tournament in Baltimore, and it was very embarrassing. I said (to myself), ‘Table tennis is not for me. I put it behind me and went back to school at Hofstra.’’
Good times in the Good Life City
After his graduation from Hofstra in early 2000, Ko said he needed to find a job, and that’s when he discovered Albany.
“I needed money, needed to make a living,’’ Ko said. “My brother-in-law owned a jewelry store in Albany. I knew absolutely nothing about Albany or the jewelry business, but I wanted to learn a business, so I told him I would come to work for him for six months.’’
Eventually, Ko bought the store in 2003, met the woman of his dreams, got married and settled down in Albany, where he still owns the store. In 2006, Ko was at a rec center at Darton College and played a pick up game of table tennis. The man he played suggested Ko might make a great coach for Darton students, and from 2006 through 2008, Ko coached the Cavaliers’ table tennis team.
“The coaching is what brought back my desire to play again,’’ Ko said. “I felt all my time and energy had gone down the drain, and I wanted to get that feeling back again.’’
It was a long road back for Ko, who admits, “I was performing poorly (at first),’’ but that he stayed at it, became competitive again and played in the open singles over-30 category in tournaments around the country.
That’s what he was doing when he discovered hardbat table tennis 20 months ago when his journey took a sweet turn for the better.
And he has yet to slow down.
These days, his life revolves around table tennis. He rises at 4:30 every Sunday morning, drives to Atlanta, competes with the best players he can find for four hours and drives back home. Ko also drives to Tallahassee, Fla., to compete.
“I’m driving 700 miles a week to play the best players I can find and train,’’ Ko said.
Even Ko’s jewelry store is a shrine to table tennis. There are tables in the back of the store and a workout table — complete with a state-of-the-art machine that feeds him balls — where Ko can volley, receive serves and work out on his own. He even hosts local tournaments at the store and just about everything comes back to his desire and drive to succeed.
“My husband loves table tennis,’’ Chelsea gushed. “He has so much (drive and desire). He wants to be the best. I don’t know anyone else (with this kind of drive). Even at night at home before he comes to bed he is holding his racquet in his hand, practicing.’’
Ko does what he calls “shadow strokes” at home, always trying to fine tune his game, always trying to elevate himself to the next level.
Comeback almost complete
One of his biggest obstacles is finding competition.
“He is (one of the top players) but there are players ranked ahead of him in table tennis,’’ Prieto said. “And it’s hard for him to find the competition he needs to practice against in Georgia. He would have to go to Miami or New York or maybe the D.C. are to find that kind of competition.’’
Still, as his wife points out, Ko’s drive is unrelenting.
The journey, the setbacks and even the bitterness along the way brought Ko back — and he felt he came all the way back when he traveled to South Korea two months ago. He not only competed, but finished third in the Korean Olympic Festival event that seemed to define the journey itself.
“I was so happy I wanted to leap for joy,’’ said Ko, who felt vindicated, while also simultaneously as if he had finally arrived. “People couldn’t believe I was the same player. To go back to Korea and succeed like that. I felt so good I almost cried.’’
Now the journey points to Virginia Beach and another tournament that could lift Ko to even greater heights.
“I don’t know how I will do,’’ Ko said. “In Korea, I felt like I was beginning to find the answer to being a really good player — now at the age of 40. I feel like I have everything in my game.
“I’m going (to the nationals) and I’m really expecting something to happen,’’ he added. “But I still want to be humble. I’ve learned so many lessons in life (on this journey). I know to never give up on your dream, to keep believing ...”