Bockoven brothers of Acton netting success in table tennis
Connor Bockoven was 8 when he discovered a box of trophies while he was rummaging through the family attic in Acton.
“He asked me what they were,” recalled his father, Ralph Bockoven.
“And I said, ‘Well, Connor, your dad plays a good game of table tennis.’ ”
Connor responded, “Oh, I could beat you.”
The discussion prompted the elder Bockoven, who had been a successful player at state, regional, and national competitions, to purchase a table. Then he began to teach Connor and his other son, Chase, how to play.
“I could tell right away that both of them had a knack for it,” he said.
Connor, now 19, and Chase, 16, have spent over a decade at dozens of tournaments, training camps, and practice sessions, winning titles and trophies in a sport most people never take out of the garage.
There are trophies from tournaments at MIT, Harvard, and the Bay State Games, in addition to other statewide, national, and international events.
Chase, heading into his senior year at Acton-Boxborough Regional High, captured gold at the US Open last month in Grand Rapids, Mich., finishing first in the U2250 division. He is ranked 73d nationally in the under-18 division.
Connor, a sophomore finance major at the University of Pittsburgh, was the bronze medalist.
They both compete in the U2250 division, which means they are both at the master level in ratings.
After a 10-year hiatus, their father picked up the sport again with his sons. He earned a first-place finish in the U2050 division at the Westchester Open in April.
And yes, table tennis, more commonly know as Ping-Pong, is a legitimate sport.
“Sometimes I won’t even mention that I play,” Chase said, “because I have to explain how hard it is, and people can’t really wrap their minds around the fact that it’s actually a sport.”
Connor and Chase both offer lessons and put on exhibitions demonstrating the skill and technique it requires.
Michael Wang, a Concord-Carlisle High graduate who plays and trains with the Bockovens, said it can be frustrating, but recognition is not the motivation.
“People don’t take it very seriously,” said the Northeastern University student. “But after a while I just figured, ‘Well, I’m just going to be honest. Yeah, I play Ping-Pong. And if you think it’s nerdy or weird, I don’t really care.’ ”
Once people realize how hard the game actually is, according to Connor, they are usually convinced.
“All my good friends have seen me play and they acknowledge and respect me for it,” he said.
The Bockovens practice at least an hour per day, in a second garage that Ralph had built a bit oversized to accommodate table tennis. When preparing for a tournament, they train up to six hours at a time.
“You could do surgery’’ in the garage,” said Ralph, noting the presence of both heat and air conditioning. “They’re very fortunate.”
They practice various techniques of spin and strategy, while hitting the ball as slow as 3 miles per hour, and as fast as 90 miles per hour.
Chase said table tennis is like a physical form of chess.
“It’s already in my head what I’m going to do and how I’m going to follow it up,” he said. “It’s very strategic.”
But although the siblings hope to promote the sport and encourage others to play, their father said they feel stagnant in New England.
“They love’’ the sport, he said, “but it’s only a hobby in this country. In other countries, it’s taken very seriously.”
Chase and Connor have trained with coaches from Medford to San Diego to Germany, always seeking to be challenged.
Chase plans to delay his college enrollment for a year to train with top players and coaches in Sweden.
“You’re not going to get that good in this country,” Chase said. “If you want to live the dream, you have to be exposed to higher-level players.”
Chase discovered his Swedish connection through Stellan and Angelita Rosal Bengtsson. Stellan is a three-time world champion, and Angelita, his wife, is a 10-time US national champ.
In 1971, at age 18, Stellan became the first Swede to win a singles title at the World Table Tennis Championships.
They run a summer camp in San Diego, “Stellangie,” which the Bockovens attended last summer.
Stellan Bengtsson said Chase would benefit tremendously from training in Sweden. “Hopefully he takes a chance,” said Bengtsson.
“He’s mentally and physically strong . . . He has all the right things that you need to become really good, but he has to do a lot of execution to get there.”
Connor is considering pursuing table tennis more seriously after graduation from Pitt, which does not have a table tennis program.
“Looking back, I think maybe I should have taken a gap year to see how good I could have become, but I kind of enjoy taking a break from the sport and doing other things,” Connor said.
Regardless of where the sport takes them, the Bockovens said, they plan to stick with it.
“I want to become a really good player, at least for US standards,” said Connor.
Bengtsson added, “We don’t have a crystal ball to see what’s going to happen, but I say go for it, and fight as hard as you can.”