Lia Morales, a thoughtful sixth grader, smiles generously and stifles a few giggles behind a hand set off by sparkly fingernail polish as she chats with her parents and talks about her love of table tennis. But as she picks up a paddle, that lighthearted girl seems to vanish as she takes an aggressive stance at the table, mouth set in a determined line and eyes wide, focused on one thing only: the ball.
The 12-year-old student at Harlandale Middle School is rising through the ranks of U.S. table tennis, currently ranked 10th in the nation among girls 12 and under.
What began about 20 months ago as casual play at the Mission Branch Library near her home has turned into an all-out dedication to the sport, even though she has to travel to face opponents her own age.
“I’m the only kid in San Antonio that really plays table tennis, so I’m mostly playing against adults,” Lia said, laughing.
When she first started playing, 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 flew past the expertise of her friends at the library and began regularly beating them. It was then her parents realized they needed to find her a coach.
Enter Vlad Farcas, who says Lia’s progress since he began working with her has been remarkable. As her skill has grown, she has traveled to tournaments in Las Vegas, Ohio, and Florida.
“She improves a lot. She loves it,” he said. “She keeps coming back and wanting to improve more.”
Farcas said some athletes may take as many as 10 or 15 years to progress from a base rating of 400, meaning they understand the basic rules of the game, to a rating of 1,900, meaning they’ve reached an advanced level of play.
Right now Lia’s rating is hovering around 1,800, Farcas said, after less than two years of playing, and she is so young that there is almost no limit to where she can go from here. Qualifying for the national team and eventually qualifying for the Olympic team are among her goals, which Farcas believes are attainable.
“I like the challenge of it,” Lia said. “I liked how hard it was, because most sports I could pick up pretty fast, but this one took longer.”
Before table tennis, her parents said she tried out baseball, soccer, cheerleading, and dance, but table tennis has sparked an altogether new level of discipline and drive in Lia. At the same time, her parents describe her as a serious student who puts academics before sports.
“She’s had all A’s. She’s never had a B in her life, and she takes pride in that,” said Frank Morales of Lia, who has three adult 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 requires good reflexes,” Farcas said. “There’s just a lot of ups and downs, and I think it’s just so unpredictable that’s why people like it, because it’s a challenge.”
He said he admires Lia’s patience and tenacity at such a young age.
“It requires a lot of commitment,” Farcas said. “Table tennis is not like any other sport. You cannot just be gifted. You can be sort of gifted, but it’s a lot of muscle memory, it’s a lot of repetition, it requires a lot of time.”
Her parents said her commitment to the sport has become so all-consuming that they have had to pull back and set limits.
On Mondays through Thursdays, Frank Morales leaves work, picks Lia up from school, and drives to their Southside home to prepare a hasty dinner and change. Then he picks his wife up from work downtown, and they head to the San Antonio Table Tennis Club on the Northeast Side, where Lia will practice for three hours. She was begging to go on the weekends for a while, too.
“We finally said, ‘We can’t go to the club on Saturdays and Sundays,’” her father said. “That has to 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 have become some of their daughter’s closest friends.
“She’s made so many friends, although she’s the smallest and the youngest,” Frank Morales said. “But everyone treats her like a baby sister, like a niece.”
Farcas, who is president of the table tennis club, hopes the attention Lia brings to the sport will encourage more community involvement and interest in table tennis. He came to San Antonio from Romania three years ago and is only 21 years old, but he has already helped to move the club into a new, bigger location and overseen an increase in membership from about 50 monthly members to around 130.
The camaraderie of the table tennis club is one of the things that Morales believes ultimately keeps his daughter and so many other players coming back day after day.
“The environment, the table tennis community, is another reason she loves it,” he said. “It’s like our other family here, it really is. We truly love a lot of the guys that are here. It’s like we’re seeing our family when we come here.”