Jonny Cowan, former Irish international star, took centre stage in a full house last night (Tuesday 8th) as MC at the Women's International Table Tennis Match between GB and Spain at the Valley Leisure Centre. The former RBAI head boy from Carryduff, retired from the international scene after an illustrious professional career in China and France, as well as many exciting successes for Ireland and Ulster.
The Pre Game Training event takes place all week (Mon 7th – Fri 11th) at the Valley Leisure Centre and represents a vital training opportunity for Olympic hopefuls, as well as a great spectator event with the public having an opportunity to observe the intense training routines over the week long event in Newtownabbey's top leisure facility.
Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure Permanent Secretary Rosalie Flanagan said:
“I am very pleased to welcome world class athletes to the Valley Leisure Centre to take part in this event which will help decide who goes forward to compete at the London 2012 Games; I wish all of the competitors success in their endeavours and would encourage everyone to get along to the centre to see some of the world’s best in action on the tables.”
To have Jonny Cowan as MC is a great accolade as has just gained a top award as the 'next voice of international table tennis'. After stiff competition from all corners of the globe, ITTF, the world governing body, chose Cowan for commentary across itTV, the online video portal for the ITTF that streams an ever-increasing number of matches, including the World Championships and Pro Tours.
Sport Northern Ireland has worked with Table Tennis Ulster and Newtownabbey to secure and deliver the event. Dominic Walsh, Chair of Sport Northern Ireland welcomed the event saying:
“It is great to see this high profile pre-Olympic training event for table tennis get underway. As well as the benefits for the athletes taking part in the training event as they work to gain qualification for London 2012, we also welcome the benefits and legacy to be gained locally. This week long event is free of charge and open to the public so local schools, clubs and young athletes can all experience high performance sport at first hand, which will really inspire and generate excitement for the Games next year. There are around 250 children from local schools who are coming along to spectate and take part in table tennis ‘taster sessions’ so this will really develop the profile of the sport and ultimately grow numbers for local table tennis clubs. Special Olympics Ulster team members from Newtownabbey Racers will also make maximum use of these taster sessions and are hoping to pick up a few top tips along the way.
The Junior and Senior table tennis squads will benefit directly from this event as they will receive world-class coaching opportunities with the visiting coaches throughout the week, and for a full day after the event. As will a range of table tennis coaches from across Northern Ireland when they attend the ‘Audience With’ master class with the visiting Olympic coaches. This type of opportunity is does not come round every day.”
Spanish National Coach Peter Engel, a former German champion, summed it all up for his Spanish female quartet when he said 'Coming here has given us the much needed space and time to train with the GB side and to work on our game plans, but the superb welcome and quality facilities have made it so much more worthwhile'.
Alan Cooke (GB Women's Coach) was careful to protect his intenational performers as they are still competing for those elusive GB team places at London 2012, with Belfast's Na Liu in strong contention for a place, and the diminuitive Na was in action in front of a noisy and undoubted supportive partisan audience. Na stuttered in the early encounters but came alive to show her quicksilver stlye, almost usurping former European Youth Champion Sara Ramirez, before going down narrowly in the fifth set, later capitulating to Spanish No. 2 Zhu Fang.
Shen Yanfei (World No. 23) led the Spanish side and showed why this dynamic left-hander was the top performer on the night despite topsy turvy battling victories over Kelly Selby and Joanna Parker (GB); however Parker's defensive style gave the crowd and the cheer leaders everything to cheer for as she edged out Zhu Fang in five sets.
Spain ended up 7-1 winners over the GB side, but the value of this Pre-Olypmic event, cleverly dubbed 'A chance to see an Olympic Match before the Games', was already clear to see with all ages enjoying the sporting excellence on show.
Table Tennis Ulster Chairperson (TTU), Pat Hunter commented:
“Table Tennis Ulster is absolutely delighted to be playing a part in this Olympic legacy Pre-Games Training Event. Table tennis medals will be hotly contested in London with the Chinese Men’s and Women’s sides favourites to take gold, so getting to London will be a major feat for many top drawer internationals, with Continental Selection events still to decide the final places.
Ulster is most privileged to host the top four Spanish Women which will include Shen Yanfei who has already qualified for London, along with the other three members of the Spanish national side. The role of Steen Hansen (Spanish National Coach) cannot be under-estimated in this coup as he has also coached the GB team in 2009 and four top UK girls will be at this superb Valley Leisure Centre venue.”
Mrs Hunter added:
“TTU is so proud of Na Liu, from Belfast, who is on the brink of gaining GB Olympic Table Tennis selection. She will be joined by rivals Kelly Sibley, Joanna Parker and Naomi Owen.”
Speaking at the event, the Mayor of Newtownabbey, Alderman Billy Webb commented:
“I am delighted that Newtownabbey has once again embraced the opportunity to host another major sporting event, and I welcome the Olympic Pre Games Training Event contestants and officials to our Valley Leisure Centre. Working in partnership with Ulster Table Tennis, Sport NI and DCAL presents us with another opportunity to showcase the Borough, and our sporting facilities. I would like to thank everyone working in this partnership because the scale of sporting events, such as this, are so large that everyone plays a key role in their planning and staging. It is the expertise of our staff in this area that I believe stands Newtownabbey in such good stead to in the future work with organising committees through all stages of sporting events. Newtownabbey people love their sport and they also demand first class facilities to watch and play their sport. It is the combination of the sport and business platforms that produce world class events such as the Olympic Pre Games Training Event.
It is a short window of opportunity for the players and coaches as they partake in the training but it’s a much larger window of opportunity to attract further sporting events to the Borough.
I hope Newtownabbey can continue to work with Sport NI to sustain what has already been achieved by this event and build on and produce athletes of the future”.
Olympic International Women's Table Tennis Event (in Valley Leisure Centre) Results: Spain 7 GB 1:
Zhu Fang lost Joanna Parker 2-3; Shen Yanfei bt Kelly Sibley 3-2; Sara Ramirez bt Na Liu 3-2; Galia Dvorak by Naomi Owen 3-1; Zhu Fang bt Na Liu 3-0; Shen Yanfei bt Joanna Parker 3-1; Sara Ramirez bt Naomi Owens 3-1; Galia Dvorak bt Kelly Sibley 3-1."
The event continues until Friday with opportunities for the public to watch a range of top class matches, so come on down!