How Oregon’s 15-year-old table-tennis star Judy Bochenski thawed the Cold War in 1971
(Original article from the Oregonian)
“The whole trip was real wild.”
That’s not the kind of thing a diplomat normally says, but Judy Bochenski wasn’t your ordinary diplomat. In 1971, the 15-year-old girl from Eugene was a member of the U.S. table tennis team that helped smooth the way for President Richard Nixon’s rapprochement with China. Journalists — and, later, historians — would call the team’s trip “Ping-Pong Diplomacy.”
The American players were in Japan for the 31st World Table Tennis Championships in April of that year. They had no plans to go to China, and the invitation to visit the country took them by surprise. “I’ll go! I’ll go!” Judy excitedly piped up when the U.S. team captain told the players about the Chinese government’s invite.
The announcement of the impending trip made front-page headlines across the U.S. and beyond. It was the “ping heard round the world,” wrote Time magazine, playing off of table tennis’ informal name.
“Boy was I knocked out about the news about Red China,” Judy wrote to her father from Japan.
She added: “I feel like a real celebrity. Ever since the news we have been hounded by reporters and photographers.”
Remember, China at the time was largely cut off from the West. Scant information came out of the country. This was the Cold War: The U.S. and Chinese governments did not have diplomatic relations and were considered mortal enemies.
The table tennis team was the first group of Americans allowed into China since the communist takeover in 1949.
The 15 Americans spent a week traveling around the country, playing exhibition matches and visiting sites such as the Great Wall and the Summer Palace.
“You have opened a new chapter in the relations of the American and Chinese people,” Premier Chou En-Lai told them at a banquet in their honor. “I am confident that this beginning again of our friendship will certainly meet with majority support of our two peoples.”
It wasn’t until Bochenski was back in Eugene that the political impact of the visit sank in for the talented young player, who was by far the youngest member of the U.S. team. “We went to China very soon after the invitation,” she recalled in 2009. “It was only later when I saw a picture of me with (Chou En-Lai) on the front pages of the world’s newspapers that I realized what was going on.”
The next year, in 1972, Nixon became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China, a diplomatic breakthrough that would be his most important and lasting foreign-policy achievement.
Even at the time, Bochenski realized she was “lucky” to be a part of the table-tennis team’s historic trip. “I was the second alternate for the U.S. team,” she told The Oregonian shortly after returning from China. “When two of the players dropped out, I got to go to Japan.”
Judy found that Japanese cities had many Western features, but it was much different in China.
“Men and women all wear the same gray uniform,” she told The Oregonian in 1971. “I never saw a skirt in the whole week we were in China. They wear no cosmetics, no jewelry and no hosiery.”
When Judy wore a miniskirt, Chinese men and women stared, embarrassed for her. They were equally embarrassed for her teammate Glenn Cowan because of his shoulder-length hair. “People would turn and stare at him on the street,” she said. “They would laugh at everything he did. He would clown it up at the matches, snapping his fingers when he missed a shot, and the crowd would roar with laughter. They were fascinated.”
They rode in old propeller planes to various cities in the vast country. “Apparently hardly anyone travels by air,” Judy told reporters. “The airports were nearly deserted.”
She felt compelled to point out, wrote The Oregonian, that there “are no hippies in China and no demonstrations against the government.”
She also pointed out that the Chinese were better at her sport than the Americans — a lot better. “Their players could smear us easily, but they were trying to be friendly,” she said.
Not wanting the remark to be misconstrued, she added: “Table tennis is the national sport over there, where it is nothing in the United States. I hope table tennis will get more backing now and become more popular. It’s really an intricate game with many facets.”
At the world championships in Japan, the four-member U.S. women’s team placed 21st. The five-member men’s team finished 28th. China’s men and Japan’s women won the gold medals.
Judy enjoyed her week in China but said she was glad she wasn’t growing up in the communist country.
“I don’t know what teenagers do over there for fun — work, I guess,” she said in the April 19, 1971, issue of The Oregonian. “In the morning we were awakened by the sound of children marching along singing songs of Mao. Adults marched and sang, too, maybe to work. They would sing songs to Mao while waving their little red books of Mao’s thoughts in unison.”
Judy brought home one of party leader Mao Zedong’s famed little red books as a souvenir.
“They woke me up just at dawn as our airplane came across the coastline into San Francisco,” she said. “That was the most beautiful sight of the whole trip — a real, modern, American city again.”
The next month, the Oregon Legislature honored Judy, with House Speaker Robert F. Smith saying that the Eugene teen had “accomplished what our negotiators couldn’t.” The Legislature declared May 6 “Judy Bochenski Day.”
Judy briefly spoke in the House chamber in Salem and then played a “friendly” table-tennis game with Gov. Tom McCall, using a desk with a makeshift net strung across it. Judy won 11-4.
“Maybe if we had a longer table you’d do better,” she told the governor.
Bochenski, who went on to graduate from Stanford University, has been a table-tennis ambassador ever since. She won national and international tournaments throughout the 1970s, as well as touring U.S. shopping centers and town halls for exhibitions where she “took on all comers.” In 1979 she scored silver and bronze medals at the Pan American Games in Puerto Rico. (Table tennis wasn’t yet an Olympic sport during her playing heyday.)
In 2006, by now married to attorney Dan Hoarfrost and with three children, she was inducted into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame.
All these years after her teenaged splash with international sports and politics — almost exactly 44 years after the Legislature declared “Judy Bochenski Day” — she remains committed to raising table tennis’ profile. She runs Paddle Palace in Southwest Portland, a table-tennis equipment company that her father started as a players’ club in the 1970s.
Table tennis has “always had a following in Portland, ever since the ’70s,” Bochenski Hoarfrost told The Oregonian this week. “But it seems to have become even more popular lately. We’ve kind of got clubs all over town.”
She mentioned Pips and Bounce on the east side, plus there are classes and a drop-in league on offer at the Ambridge Event Center. There’s also the Portland Table Tennis Club, and the Cosmos Table Tennis Club.
And she wants to ramp up all this local table-tennis activity a notch. She says she is selling Paddle Palace’s Multnomah Village building and is moving the company to downtown Tigard.
“The new building (in Tigard) is five times bigger than the building we’re in now,” she says. “We will be able to accommodate the growth of our business. Possibly we will open a full-time club again. Go back to our roots a little bit. We’ll have lessons and classes and leagues, senior groups at lunchtime.”
She says opening a new club is still in the dreaming stage — but hopes to have the club up and running early next year.
“When table tennis became an Olympic sport (in 1988), that added cachet,” she says. “We have to keep it going.”
— Douglas Perry