By Richard Coffey
Every Wednesday, around 5:15 p.m, the lobby in front of the men’s locker room at the Ryerson Athletic Centre (RAC) used to become the site of intense competition with 20 students gathered around two ping pong tables trying to be victorious.
But since March, the paddles have remained packed away, the tables are still folded and the regular Wednesday night bustle at the RAC has been replaced with a silence that has enveloped most public venues. If you ask Juan Liyau, a third-year mathematics student, he knows that someday soon, the crowds will gather again and he will be back teaching how to deliver a clean forehand drive.
Liyau is the captain of the school’s table tennis club. Like most of the 17 competitive clubs at Ryerson, the table tennis club was forced to shut down in March due to the pandemic, leaving Liyau without the chance to improve his skills and help others around him grow as well.
Growing up in the Liyau house in Peru, table tennis was a family affair. Liyau says he got involved at the age of five.
“I remember my dad, my uncle and my aunt all played table tennis since they were young,” he said. “One day my dad brought me to play table tennis and after 10 minutes I fell in love with it.”
Immersed in a new, exciting world, the goal for young Liyau was simple. “I always wanted to beat my dad because he would always beat me,” he said.
“He does a great job at nurturing and expanding our skills and he is always pushing us to become better players”
Liyau wouldn’t stop at his dad though. He kept playing and improving and when he was 10 years old, his skill caught the eye of the Peruvian Junior National Team in 2010.
Joining the national team meant travelling across the continent for tournaments against South American squads from countries including Argentina and Brazil. In 2012, Juan struck gold in the South American U-13 Championships, winning the title.
For Juan, this was truly an unexpected win. “For a guy from Peru to be able to win a tournament at that level was pretty unusual,” Liyau admitted.
In 2014 he one-upped himself, taking the gold in doubles at the Latin American Championships, vaulting him to a pair of U-15 World Championship appearances in Slovenia and Barbados. His rookie run was unsuccessful at the world championships but in Liyau’s mind, it was an opportunity for growth.“To get to play against players at that level, you get to learn a lot,” he said.
In 2015, the Liyau family immigrated to Canada, putting a hold on his table tennis aspirations until 2017 when he enrolled at Ryerson with one eye on his academics and another on his favourite sport.
“I did not see table tennis in Ryerson’s varsity sports, so I wasn’t sure if I would be able to compete at Ryerson,” said Liyau. However, this only motivated him to make the team more prominent on campus.
For Liyau, in the fall of 2017 that first trip to the RAC and his first experience with Ryerson Table Tennis was surprisingly straightforward. “I just went to the RAC one day, saw people playing and asked if there were tryouts,” he said.
His first two years at Ryerson saw a table tennis team that was lacklustre but always put forth a valiant effort. “We would go to the Ontario divisionals, and not do that well but we had a lot of fun,” Liyau said.
At the start of last season, things changed albeit a little unceremoniously. Liyau chuckles remembering,“I actually didn’t apply to be captain. Last year we were trying to get varsity accreditation, Ryerson Athletics needed a president, a vice-president and a captain so one day the president said we need a captain and everyone on the team pointed at me.”
It was a recognition of the impact that he has made on the Ryerson Table Tennis Club.
When asked about that impact Liyau is modest, saying, “I think I’ve done a good job at helping players improve.”
The club’s vice-president Daner Carita views it differently though. “I think Juan is a very dedicated team captain,” Carita said. “He does a great job at nurturing and expanding our skills and he is always pushing us to become better players.”
A fellow third-year student, Carita has seen Liyau grow both as an international student, adapting to a new country and as a member of the table tennis club who slowly earned the respect of his peers.
“I think that it took a lot of him to come to Canada to adapt to the new culture,” Carita said. “But through the shared love of table tennis that many RU students have it helped him adjust and get out of his comfort zone.”
Ultimately for Liyau, Carita and the entire Ryerson Table Tennis team, the end goal for their club is one day achieving varsity team status. It’s a tall ask—Ryerson Athletics sets out guidelines on the number of students that have to participate in tryouts and practices to be given varsity status and the table tennis club is just not there yet. Instead, Liyau has created a simpler goal.
“Every time you ask someone at Ryerson, name three school sports they would probably say basketball, hockey and volleyball,” he said. “I would like to get table tennis in that group”.
Liyau’s goal is to get more recognition of table tennis around the university, to get more students to gather around the tables in the RAC on Wednesday nights and to show more people the game that he fell in love with all those years ago.