Michael McFarland's obsession for table tennis started when he was in elementary school and would visit his dad at work as recreation director of Legion Park in Miami. • The obsession grew each time he won a match — first in community tournaments in South Florida and later as a middle school student competing at the annual Florida Closed Table Tennis Tournament in Orlando. He won back-to-back titles there at ages 10 and 11 and again at 13 and 14.
He's all grown up now, but the obsession remains. In April, McFarland opened Spin City Sports, a table tennis facility off Starkey Road. He hopes the clublike setting will encourage more people to enjoy the sport he has loved since childhood.
"Life is busy, and table tennis has always been my escape. You get going with the ball and paddle. You can get taken away into the game itself,'' said McFarland, 34.
Spin City Sports is housed in an air-conditioned, 5,000-square-foot warehouse with eight table tennis courts in the center. It's a place where voices retreat behind the rhythmic pattering of balls hitting paddles.
It's also a place that already attracts an eclectic mix of people, McFarland said. Since the club opened about 12 weeks ago, 40 players have become regular members. They range in age from third-graders to senior citizens.
On a recent Wednesday, two cousins, Raymond and Chase Chau, both 9, divided their time between a table tennis court and the Wii station.
"My dad learned how to play in Vietnam,'' said Chase. "He started bringing us here because he wanted us to learn the basics through a professional.''
Nearby, Philip Irish, a former tennis professional, was finishing up a match with his sister Janet Irish. The adult siblings visit Spin City Sports at least once a week from Tampa.
"Table tennis is easier on the joints than other sports,'' said Irish, 63. "And most of all, it's good for the head. It's really, really good for the head.''
McFarland says his vision is to provide a place for families to get together, as well as to develop players who can compete in nationally sanctioned tournaments.
Spin City Sports adheres to the standards of the USA Table Tennis Association, the organization sending four players to the Olympics this summer.
"Our floor is the soft, Olympic-style flooring, and our courts are to the specs of the USATT (15 feet by 35 feet),'' McFarland said.
The business also offers training with Gary Fraiman, a former coach for the Russian national team, who moved to the United States in 1977.
"In places like Germany and China, they already know this, but here in the U.S., people need to recognize more the benefits of the sport,'' said Fraiman, 63. "It's good fitness, but it also helps with things like memory. Did you know that table tennis is being used at some places to treat Alzheimer's? This is a lifetime sport.''
Harry McFarland, Michael's father, thinks his son's passion is due in large part to his exposure at a young age to international players who spent time in Miami.
"As a young boy, he met players from around the world, particularly from the Caribbean countries,'' said Harry McFarland. "My son learned different strokes from some of the best, and what he learned he held on to.''
However, when he became a teenager, McFarland moved to East Lake, where he suddenly felt a void. He realized that the popularity of table tennis in Miami did not stretch across the state to his new home.
"I was 15, and all of a sudden I didn't have anyone to compete against,'' he said. "I got into soccer in high school, but I never let (table tennis) go."
It was in 2002, after returning to the Tampa Bay area from studying at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, that McFarland decided to "start a grass roots effort, bringing more people to the sport,'' he said.
So as he pursued a livelihood in the catering and banquet industry, he volunteered at the Sunrise Table Tennis Club based at the Long Center in Clearwater. He helped start a youth program there.
He also signed up as a community liaison with the National Collegiate Table Tennis Association. That led to his serving in both state and national roles for the organization.
And in 2008, to help increase the number of clubs statewide, he founded the Florida Table Tennis Association, which falls under the USATT.
According to Andy Horn, the tournament and ratings coordinator at the USATTA in Colorado, the interest in competitive table tennis has ebbed and flowed.
"But with businesses like Michael's, the number of players is sure to increase,'' he said. "And ultimately, it will help the sport grow on a national level. Players who begin regular play at (Spin City Sports) will eventually learn about tournaments and rankings, and that will lead them to us. So ultimately, his business is a benefit for us.''
Harry McFarland said he's not surprised at his son's success. "He's always loved the game, and he's worked hard at this. I just am very proud of seeing his business open.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.