Paddle sport proved a passion

 Tony Shaw officiates a table tennis match at the Richmond Olympic Oval. Shaw’s first experience with the sport was with a makeshift cement platform and a rudimentary bamboo net. - Matthew Hoekstra photo
Tony Shaw officiates a table tennis match at the Richmond Olympic Oval. Shaw’s first experience with the sport was with a makeshift cement platform and a rudimentary bamboo net.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra photo

Tony Shaw is living proof that age is but a number.

In the past year or two he’s probably logged more air miles than many east coast pilots. And in September, following a brief hiatus, the Richmond man—who celebrated birthday No. 70 in May—will pack his travel bags again for a trip to Taiwan.

Shaw is widely regarded as one of the world’s top table tennis referees, a distinction that continually earns him invitations to many of the sport’s elite competitions.

“I needed to slow down a little,” he laughs, just a few weeks after overseeing the 2014 Double Fish International Table Tennis Federation North America Cup tournament at Simon Fraser University.

Shaw has been an ardent student of table tennis since he was a young boy. Growing up poor in Taiwan, he and his friends discovered a cement platform in their neighbourhood which they used as a makeshift table. Bamboo served as a rudimentary net and a piece of wood for a paddle.

“There was no way we could afford a table. That would have been a luxury item at that time,” says Shaw. “There were maybe one in 10,000 families that could own one. But for some reason, when I got to junior high, I had a rich classmate whose family was one of the few that had a table at home. He invited me to come over and play.”

Baseball was the big sport in Taiwan when Shaw was a child, followed by basketball. Table tennis was just beginning to gain popularity, but it was the sport that most appealed to him.

“I guess I learned a lot from playing on that (cement platform). It certainly started my interest,” he says. “Later, we found out one of the railway offices had a recreation area and there was a table there. We used to play until we got too loud and got kicked out.”

Shaw was at least a decent player by the time he enrolled in junior high school, but by the senior grades had given up the game to focus on academic ambitions.

“The competition was very tough when I was in high school, but so too were the entry exams to study,” he says. “I only started to play a little again in university. In fact, most of my enjoyment playing the game came after I moved to Canada.”

It was in Canada, where Shaw moved at the age of 25, that he finally realized his dream to own his own table. He purchased it, he recalls, from the old Woodward’s store at Lansdowne Shopping Centre when he was 33 years old.

“It felt like now I owned something that I could really enjoy. It fulfilled a dream I had a long, long time ago,” he says.

At first, though, Shaw played table tennis strictly for fun while introducing his then elementary school-aged son the sport and to share an activity with his young family. But as time passed, Shaw’s passion for the game was rekindled and he eventually decided to play in the local clubs. The many losses, to start, reminded him that the game is not as easy as it might look. It also whetted his appetite to learn more about it.

“I started paying more and more attention and eventually picked things up,” he says.

Those lessons proved invaluable, and before long he had found his way to being elected a director at Table Tennis BC, and eventually its president.

“You learn that at a high, competitive level it’s not a game that you just hit the ball back and forth,” he says. “There’s all sorts of different spins players can put on the ball, and there are ways you can improve your eye-hand co-ordination. It took four or five years of playing regularly before I was at least happy with my level.

“I was always asking for tips, but mostly I learned by watching how others played. The best lessons are from your defeats, but when you’re getting better it creates more interest.”

Shaw became quite proficient at his chosen craft, even winning some titles while playing in a Greater Vancouver league in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. It was during this period that he discovered something that would help define him later in life—the importance of officials.

“Before then I had no idea,” he says. “At that time I was thinking when you play you need to know the rules, because if you argue and you don’t them you’ll look foolish. I certainly didn’t expect it would go this far.”

In 1986, Shaw started his foray into umpiring working at the club level. In 1992, he passed the necessary qualifications to become an internationally-certified official. Now that he’s retired from his job as a chief engineer at the Vancouver School Board, he has the time needed to accept the many opportunities that regularly come his way.

“When you’re younger you always find yourself wanting to do something but not having the time,” he chuckles. “Now that I have the time, it’s rewarding to be able to do something with it that’s fulfilling.”

For the past decade, Shaw has been recognized as one of only a handful of officials worldwide to hold the title of advanced umpire. He’s one of only six in all of Canada.

Never one to take anything for granted, his continuing habit of reviewing the rules and being aware of any knew ones reflects his intense dedication.

Reflecting the sometimes-whirlwind nature of being a “blue badge,” Shaw has travelled extensively the last few years. He’s officiated at three world championships, a Pan-Paralympics and a pro tour event to name but a few of the events that have taken him to such places as Brazil, India and throughout Asia.

“I was always interested in geography as a high school student and actually my dream was to become a professor,” he says.

It was an ambition he very nearly realized, before giving it up to come to Canada.

Though the travel frequently takes him out of the country, Shaw continues to enjoy playing table tennis too. He says it is a good source of exercise and helps keep you alert.

Playing just about every day at the Richmond Olympic Oval, he adds that it is not only a relatively inexpensive sport but also one that has no prejudice about size. Big or tall, everyone can participate and become as good a player as they want to be.

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