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November 13, 2013

'Pingpong diplomacy'

High school senior's table tennis skills land him trip to China

Kokomo High School senior Craig Simon took off his suit jacket, tucked his tie into his pants, changed his shoes and played pingpong against one of the best players at Donyang Foreign Language School in China.

It was an experience he will never forget.

He was invited to Dongyang by the city’s deputy mayor – a man who leads 800,000 people and is responsible for making 5,000 government appointments.

When the high-ranking Chinese official was in Kokomo in January, he challenged Simon to an impromptu game at the international residence hall.

Superintendent Jeff Hauswald pulled Simon out of trigonometry to play. The 18-year-old dazzled the Chinese delegation with his skills.

“They were so impressed they invited me back there to play,” Simon said.

Simon said pingpong is a pretty obscure sport in the United States. Not very many people play. But in China, it’s the national sport. Kids start playing in kindergarten, kind of like t-ball. They take it very seriously. The fact that they were impressed with his skills was an honor, he said.

Simon got his start in sixth- or seventh-grade playing against much older men at the Kokomo Table Tennis Club. They showed him the ropes, and now he schools many of them during their weekly matches.

But Dave Barnes, director of communications for Kokomo Schools, said Simon impressed Dongyang’s deputy mayor in other ways, too. It went beyond his pingpong skills.

“He was impressed with how Craig handled himself, how courteous he was, how well mannered,” Barnes said. “That really left an impression on him.”

So at the deputy mayor’s request, Simon joined Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight’s delegation of government, business and education officials who recently visited Kokomo’s sister city in eastern China.

He played at least two matches while he was there – one against the Dongyang Foreign Language School’s best player, in his suit and tie, and one against the deputy mayor.

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