Thoughtful sixth-grader Lia Morales smiles generously and stifles a few laughs behind a hand accented with shiny nail polish as she chats with her parents and talks about her love of table tennis. But as she picks up a paddle, this light-hearted girl seems to disappear as she takes an aggressive stance at the table, her mouth drawn in a determined line and her eyes wide, focused on just one thing: the ball.
The 12-year-old Harlandale Middle School is rising through the ranks of American table tennis, currently ranked 10th in the country in girls 12 and under.
What started around 20 months ago while playing the occasional Mission Branch library near her home has turned into a total dedication to the sport, even though she has to travel to face opponents her age.
“I’m the only kid in San Antonio who really plays table tennis, so I mostly play against adults,” Lia said with a laugh.
When she first started acting, the older men she played against thought she was just a cute kid, but her trajectory since then has been nothing short of explosive.
Her parents said she quickly got over the expertise of her friends at the library and started beating them regularly. It was then that his parents realized they needed to find him a trainer.
Enter Vlad Farcas, who says Lia’s progress since he started working with her has been remarkable. As her skills developed, she competed in tournaments in Las Vegas, Ohio, and Florida.
“She’s improving a lot. She loves it, “he said.” She keeps coming back and wants to improve more. “
Farcas said some athletes can take up to 10 or 15 years to go from a base score of 400, which means they understand the basic rules of the game, to a score of 1900, which means that they have reached an advanced level of play.
Right now, Lia’s odds hover around 1,800, Farcas said, after less than two years of playing, and she’s so young there’s almost no limit to where she can go from. from here. Qualifying for the national team and eventually qualifying for the Olympic team are among his goals, which Farcas believes are achievable.
“I like the challenge,” said Lia. “I liked how hard it was, because most of the sports I could learn pretty quickly, but this one took longer.”
Before table tennis, her parents said she tried baseball, soccer, cheerleading and dancing, but table tennis brought a whole new level of discipline and conduct to Lia. At the same time, her parents describe her as a serious student who puts studies before sports.
“She’s had all the Aces. She’s never had a B in her life and she’s proud of it,” said Frank Morales of Lia, who has three grown siblings.
Farcas said the challenge of table tennis is what he believes attracts many players to the sport.
“It’s so hard because the ball is so small and has so much spin, so fast, it takes good reflexes,” said Farcas. “There are just a lot of ups and downs, and I think it’s so unpredictable that’s why people like it, because it’s a challenge.”
He said he admired Lia’s patience and tenacity at such a young age.
“It takes a lot of commitment,” Farcas said. “Table tennis is not a sport like any other. You can’t just be good. You can be kind of good, but it’s a lot of muscle memory, it’s a lot of repetition, it takes a lot of time.
His parents said his commitment to the sport had become so consuming that they had to step back and set limits.
Monday through Thursday, Frank Morales leaves work, picks up Lia from school, and heads to their Southside home to cook a hasty dinner and change. Then he picks up his wife from work downtown and they head to the San Antonio Table Tennis Club in the Northeast, where Lia will train for three hours. She also begged to go on weekends for a while.
“We finally said, ‘We can’t go to the club on Saturdays and Sundays,’” his father said. “It must be family time.”
A 12th birthday party
Lia turned 12 this week and wanted her birthday party to be at the club, where the members became their daughter’s closest friends.
“She’s made so many friends, even though she’s the smallest and the youngest,” said Frank Morales. “But everyone treats her like a little sister, like a niece.”
Farcas, who is president of the table tennis club, hopes that Lia’s attention to the sport will encourage greater community involvement and greater interest in table tennis. He arrived in San Antonio from Romania three years ago and is only 21, but he has already helped move the club to a new, larger location and has overseen a membership increase of around 50 members. monthly to around 130.
The companionship of the table tennis club is one of the things that Morales says keeps his daughter and so many other players coming back day after day.
“The environment, the table tennis community, is another reason she likes it,” he said. “It’s like our other family here, really. We really like a lot of the guys who are here. It is as if we are seeing our family when we come here.