Golden West Open a big hit

All it took was a $660 parking ticket for Gao Jun to find out about Santa Monica College's table tennis program.

Being unfamiliar with United States parking laws, Jun unknowingly parked in a red zone while picking up a food order and was promptly cited.

Jun, a highly decorated, former Olympic medalist and one of the world's most renowned table tennis players, was merely on vacation in Los Angeles and not looking to play.

"A friend of mine heard about the [SMC] tournament and suggested I play to win the prize money to pay the ticket," said Jun jokingly.

Jun, who began playing at the age of five, won the tournament in 2009 and has since been a staple at the Golden West Open, SMC's yearly table tennis competition.

Started 40 years ago by Jo Kidd, a retired emeritus professor and table tennis instructor, the competition hosts some of the best players from the greater Los Angeles area.

Participants in the tournament vary in age, and it is not uncommon to see a young child matched up against someone much older.

"That's the beauty of table tennis, you can play from age eight to 80," said Kidd.

An entire team of children from Baja, Calif. was entered in this year's tournament, much to the delight of Kidd, as well as Joe Mendoza Jr., the director of the Pacific Branch of the Santa Monica Boys and Girls Club.

"It's the first time for a lot of these kids to see table tennis on this level," said Mendoza. "There's really nice sportsmanship from older players."

Mendoza is an avid table tennis player himself, playing at many local venues including Busby's Bar in Santa Monica, and is thrilled to have the Boys and Girls Club participate.

Having youth involved in SMC's table tennis program is part of Kidd's view of connecting SMC to the community at large.

"We want to collaborate with youth from all the local rec centers such as us [Boys and Girls Club], the Pico Youth and Family Center, and the Virginia Park Teen Center," said Mendoza. "Eventually, we want to be able to host our own tournaments."

Many SMC alumni help organize the tournament each year, including Jerry Davila-Castro.

Davila-Castro attended SMC in 1990 and has been playing table tennis since he was in high school. Having survived polio as an infant, he is relegated to a wheelchair, but that has not stopped him from enjoying the sport he loves most.

"I walked in [to SMC] and saw classes for table tennis, so I signed up," explained Davila-Castro. "I met Jo Kidd and I've made some very good friends."

Davila-Castro was a member of the 1992 USA Paralympics team, and has competed in several Pan-American games, winning both gold and silver medals. His trip to Barcelona in 1992 was very significant for him, as it is his home city.

"I was a full-time student, and I wasn't able to pay the entire $2,500 to go to Barcelona in the Paralympics," said Davila-Castro. "Jo Kidd helped me out tremendously by raising funds. I couldn't have done it without her."

Now retired and a member of the SMC Sports Hall of Fame, the highly decorated Davila-Castro still feels that competitive edge every now and then.

"I still practice but I don't play competitively anymore," he said. "I miss it a lot, I don't want to leave it I want to stay close."

Helping coach younger players is a way for older veterans to stay connected to the game, just like Jun now does. A knee injury caused her to pull out of the 2012 Olympics, and she has since opened her own table tennis club in El Monte and had several students entered in the tournament.

"It's such a great facility here, the staff is amazing and very friendly," said Jun.

She has helped purchase several new tennis tables for the event.

Kamran Khairzad, another SMC alum and the new director of the table tennis program following Kidd's retirement, has been hooked on the sport since he first took it up almost twenty years ago.

"I took Jo Kidd's class back in '92 and like they say, the rest is history," Khairzad said.