SMC Specialty Engineer competes in Olympic trials

  • Published
  • By Walter Talens
  • SMC Public Affairs

A Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) engineer hones his body and keeps his mind sharp, achieving higher-and-higher levels of accomplishment through competitive table-tennis.

Gabriel Griffin is a DCIA User Engagement contractor for the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and a US Army Reserve (USAR) first lieutenant. A life-long athlete who trained in soccer, volleyball, baseball, basketball and martial arts; Griffin fell in love with table tennis at the age of 15 from an exhibition video featuring Scott “The Ping-Pong Man” Preiss. The sport attracted Griffin due to its complexity and intensity, “The energy and intensity of table tennis is unlike any sport at its higher levels. Reactions are occurring at 1/10th of a second. Your mind must think strategically while your body performs actions at high speed” Gabriel said.

After previously earning a spot as a finalist in table tennis at the U.S. Open in 2019, Gabriel took his game to even higher levels of competition at the U.S. Olympics Team Trials for table tennis, recently held at Santa Monica College. The tournament hosted 55 Olympic hopefuls and whittled them down to one champion that will join the U.S. Olympic Team in Japan. One of those hopefuls is Griffin.

The U.S. Open, where Gabriel earned a Bronze Medal, took the top 55 American players and let them slug it out for an opportunity to compete in the Olympic Team Trials. The tournament drew in the Serena Williams, Stephen Curry, and Tom Brady of table tennis. Including our young and humble SMC contractor, all jockeying for the honor to represent the United States in the 2020 Olympic Team.

The SMC Specialty Engineer having a B.S. degree in Geographic Information Science from The University of North Carolina, Greensboro and a Master’s degree in Business Management and Leadership from Western Governors University is no stranger to mental agility or risk. The Greensboro native had already excelled in the biggest tournament of his table tennis career, the U.S. Open Table Tennis Championship, and was ready to take a leap to the next level. During that competition Gabriel said, “I felt energized albeit slightly nervous...”

Table tennis, also known as ping-pong, is a sport requiring two or four (doubles) players to quickly move across half a 9’ x 5’ table, trying to hit a white 1.57 inch ball with a rubber padded paddle, that needs to jump over six inch net that spans across the middle of the table, and bounce at least once on said table. Sound easy? It’s not when the ball is traveling 25 miles per hour, on average.

Working at the Space and Missile Systems Center, serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, and head coach of the UCLA Junior Varsity team I asked Gabriel what motivates him to train and compete with so many things going on in his life? Griffin responds, “As a coach, I think it is important to perform at these high level tournaments and gain the experience… It was a dream of mine a few months after starting [table tennis].”

Gabriel’s first Olympic attempt ended in a first round elimination by Stephen Chu a veteran competitor in table tennis. Despite the results of the tournament, Griffin is already moving forward and looking ahead to training and hopefully competing in future tournaments like the National Table Tennis Championships, North American Table Tennis Championships, and the 2020 U.S. Open.

Although Gabriel faces a new challenge these days with the “stay-at-home” order due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. He says, “It’s difficult to maintain a competitive edge at this time… I will normally just shadow practice in lieu of a table. I think it’s unwise at this time for people to meet and congregate in gyms and so it’s something that for now, we will have to deal with.”

Taking a note from the mental agility of table tennis, Gabriel is adjusting to the current “new normal” of teleworking, missing outdoor activities and sporting events, while striving to keep his table tennis teams engaged through teleconferencing. As he enjoys the break from the daily Los Angeles grind to enjoy the simpler and slower pace of life, Griffin reminds people to do their best, whatever they decide to do in life. He says, “Life will go up and down but try to stay the course… grow bonds and friendships which I think help keep people together especially through times like this.”

Gabriel might not have achieved the results he wanted during the trials, but the tournament produced a first in American table tennis when it awarded 17-year old Nikhil Kumar as the first American born U.S. Table Tennis Olympian. In the meantime, Gabriel is in the process of bringing a table tennis training program and creating a team inside LA Air Force Base after the self-isolation order is lifted.