In the summer of 2014, Elmo Morales visited the U.S. Open for table tennis in Grand Rapids, where he was amazed to see a total of 93 tables set up for the event.
"Can you imagine 93 tables?" Morales says. "Men, women, kids, special needs people, people in wheelchairs, with crutches. Everybody was doing it."
Morales was inspired to speak with the championship table supplier, who gave him a deal on eight pingpong tables for more than half off. At first, he stored the tables at his friend’s tennis facility, but in March of 2017 he put them to use by opening Elmo’s Ping Pong Palace at 7069 Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd. in Dexter.
The palace is in a 3,500-square-foot rental unit where patrons pay whatever they can to play pingpong. Patrons and passersby can see the tables from the parking lot since the shop has large windows and bright fluorescent lights. Upon entering, a pool table can be seen on the left and the white walls are covered in eclectic art from Morales’ garage.
There has never been an American Olympic medalist in table tennis, and Morales’ goal is to produce an Olympic medalist by 2036. For this to happen, he hopes the palace grows from a recreational destination to an instructional facility.
"We have to get the kids who are six, seven, eight years old so we can build a culture of people wanting to become champions," Morales says.
Ultimately, Morales will need a facility that can support coaches and trainers. The current location is only affordable due to rent concessions.
"It’s not a sexy sport," says Morales. "It’s not a sport people pay lots of money for. It is very affordable."
Countries like China have received medals in the Olympics, but in China, table tennis is a state-supported sport with training academies. However, interest in table tennis is high, as it has been estimated to be among the top 10 sports in the world by participation. It is also now a collegiate sport in the U.S., with some division two and three schools offering scholarships for table tennis players.
Morales, who is well known locally for owning Elmo’s Liberty Street T-Shirts, developed a fascination with the sport when he and his wife caught an international table tennis championship on television in early 2014. They witnessed four women competing in the 85 years and over category.
"My God, this is something we can do into our late years," Morales said to his wife.
Morales grew up an athlete, and moved to Ann Arbor in August 1964 on a track scholarship for the University of Michigan. Morales is a retired Ann Arbor Community High School gym teacher and a founder of the annual Dexter-Ann Arbor Run. This June marks 45 years of the run. As a former gym teacher, Morales is familiar with encouraging health and fitness through leisure activities, and he is able to play most sports.
"I’m gym-teacher good," Morales says. "I can do everything pretty well. I’m certainly not a high-level competitor and I don’t have to be."
While teaching, he found pingpong to be a great sport for his students with special needs because the sport can be played by most people, regardless of physical ability.
"Because a lot of people have (pingpong tables) in their basements, they have had an opportunity to play," Morales says.
He says some people have learned to play incorrectly, but once they learn the correct technique the game becomes more fun. Morales is able to teach patrons the form and techniques of table tennis. His brother Esteban, who also helps to instruct and manage the shop, says the game has many nuances.
"Some of the nuances include spinning [the ball]," Esteban Morales says. "It can be wild."
Elmo Morales would like to see the community engage creatively with his space and use it for tournaments. He says he's heard of IT companies and other businesses owning pingpong tables and he'd love to see companies compete at the palace.
"It brings back a lot of the fun you had when you were a kid, and as an adult it is more fun," Morales says.
Afaf Humayun is a reporter, poet, artist, and activist who works to preserve and expand the future of the humanities while staying engaged on issues of inclusion. You can find some of her writings at The Keel Port Huron and The Arab American News. She lives in Ypsilanti.
All photos by Doug Coombe.