Sean O’Neill (Photo #1) came to the Sport when he was seven—began going to a local club (Photo #2) with his dad Pat who as a teenager played in Ohio tournaments. The O’Neill family had hosted the newly arrived Thailand Champions, Charlie Wuvanich and Chuchai Chan, and in the summer of 1975, after the Thais had decided to base themselves in Minneapolis, Sean, just turning eight, went to Charley Disney’s Magoo’s Club to be coached by them. Later, in Virginia, Chan would be a live-in coach for Sean, and a demanding one. “One time,” said Sean, who if he missed a ball had to do 10 push-ups, “I hit 2,600 consecutive forehands—it took an hour and 45 minutes—and my arm was ready to fall off. Then Chan said I had to do 1,000 backhands.”
In 1978, (PHOTO #3) Sean, his arch-rival Scott Butler and teenager Mike Shapiro won the Junior Division of the U.S. Open Team Championships (that’s Scott’s dad, Dick, the boys look to be learning from). Having lost both the U.S. Open and Closed Boys U-11 to Scott, Sean, needing to do better, was off to Sweden for six weeks to train at Nisse Sandburg’s famed Angby Club. He took with him the goodwill of the Virginia State Senate—expressed in the form of 100 bags of Virginia peanuts. On coming home, Sean studied videotapes of Butler, and as a result he won the 1979 U.S. Closed Boys U-13 from him. As opponents they’d go on to exchange major titles, while together they were dominant in U-13 Doubles play. (PHOTO #4) Sometimes, they were a mite tired from all their play and sought the comforts of their moms (Kathy on the left, Sue on the right.)
Being prodigies in the Sport, (PHOTO #4-A) they naturally attracted the attention of the media. In 1980 they were flown to New York City (PHOTO #5) for the ABC “Kids Are People Too” show, were put up at the (San) St. Moritz Hotel opposite Central Park, treated to dinner at the Hotel’s fancy French restaurant, and were driven by chauffer to the studio for their scripted seven-minute stint with Kathy Lee Crosby. Also while in New York they’d (PHOTO #6) posed with another celebrity—which wasn’t difficult once they’d visited Marty Reisman’s Club.
Of course Sean was always intensely competitive. When (PHOTO #7) a young Swedish friend who’d trained with him at Angby visited him, Sean’s mom, Kathy, put a star chart on the refrigerator door. The first boy to get 35 stars won a dollar. “Once,” said Sean, “when Lars didn’t get a star for self-control, he thought I was upstairs and he’d get ahead of me by skipping rope. But I fooled him. I hid. And then I went out and ran 4 miles. So I got 4 stars—and after that there was no way he could catch me.” When in 1980 O’Neill revisited Sweden for six weeks and stayed as a guest at Lars’ home, 12-year-old Sean said, “The most difficult part of the trip was getting my prizes, clothes, books, and 96 beer cans into my two allotted pieces of luggage.” (Beer cans? They were empty. He’d become, I believe, not a drunkard but a collector.)
By 1981, Sean had won his first National Sports Festival title—(PHOTO #8) the Men’s Doubles with Randy Seemiller. And also (PHOTO #9), with his power-loop that (PHOTO 9-A) would develop over the years, the first of his U.S. U-15 and U-17 Championships. Then, in 1982, he was back in Sweden—this time being patiently coached by Stellan Bengtsson at his “Falkenberry” club. Later, Sean, Khoa Nguyen, Brandon Olson, and the Butler brothers were off to China (PHOTO #10) for coaching and (PHOTO #11) sightseeing at the Ming Tombs. That year, too, O’Neill was named U.S. Amateur Athlete of the Year—an Award he would win many times.
In 1983, with dad Pat as Manager and son Sean (PHOTO 11-A) as clean-up man, the U.S. won the Team Championship at the Apr. Cuban Invitational. Sean’s mantra? Think big! (“21—ZIP”: that was the family car’s license plate.) Having been given the “Best Technique Award” at the Cuba tournament, he now went on to win—momentarily disturbed by an adjacent player’s vomit extended onto his court—the first of his remarkable seven consecutive U.S. Olympic Festival Singles Championships. This boy, youth, man will set a record of winning 18 gold medals—that’s more than any other athlete, in any other Olympic sport, has won, ever. Justly, he’ll be given the honor of lighting the Olympic torch at the 1993 Festival.
Bummer conditions at the ’83 Pan-Am Games in Caracas brought Mixed gold for Sean, and, later, more medals in Indianapolis and Havana. From the beginning, this young man had GO FOR IT! brains, courage, heart. Since he had the ability to think critically, analytically, he would work hard at getting varied sponsors—and so begin imaginatively to create a future, a living for himself, in the Sport.
1985 was a banner year for Sean. He played in his first World Championship. Then, as an 18-year-old University student, after building up his endurance by biking and running, and studying with little sleep the videotapes and stats in his daily log of probable opponents, he came directly from his semester’s final exams (#11—B) to win the first of his five U.S. Men’s Singles Championships.
In 1986, Sean enrolled in the USTTA’s Colorado Springs Resident Training Program, and in his spare time would pick up courses at the University of Colorado for the Business Information Systems major he’d eventually become. Now quality coaches, like Henan Li Ai and (PHOTO #11-C), later, Li Zhenshi, could do “intensity checks” on him—track his “physical and emotional readiness” so that he could peak for the major tournaments. Now, too, he could avail himself of the services of a nutritionist and a sports psychologist, develop a weight training program and use the most modern video equipment available that would allow him to study the world’s best players.
Table Tennis made its Olympic debut, and Sean his, in Seoul in 1988. He had prepared well. His weekly training regimen had included “over 30 hours of technique training, 4 to 8 hours of conditioning, 3 to 5 hours of vision enhancement training, and several hours of work with the Training Center’s sports psychologist.” With his (PHOTO # 12) dedicated focus and determination, and some key coaching from his close Thai friend Chartchai “Hank” Teekaveerakit, he qualified for these prestigious Games, the only U.S. male to do so, via a climactic 3-2 win over Canada’s Horatio Pintea. Of course Mom, Dad, and sister Molly, always supportive, were ecstatic.
Earlier, Sean’s desire to go to the Olympics, be a part of that breathtaking Opening Ceremony, had motivated him the more to be the 1987 U.S. Men’s Champion because, he said, he didn’t want to go to Seoul as just “one of the top U.S. players.” Nor at those Olympics was he only a competitor. He’d been trained by a sponsor to be talk-show oriented, confident and at ease speaking in public, and so (PHOTO #13) was asked to do an NBC commentary at the Games.
Four years later, in qualifying for the Barcelona Olympics, Sean had an early 4-game loss to fellow Olympian Jim Butler, somehow dropping the 1st game from 20-14 up, then losing the 3rd at deuce, and the 4th at 19. But against all the other players, he was (PHOTO #14), with his fast foot speed and (#14-A) opening step-around forehand that would zing in loop kills, an unbelievable 30 and 0! Against lefties particularly, Sean’s forehand serve (PHOTO #15), somewhat hidden, successfully concealed his spin or no spin.
In 1988, O’Neill, along with his sponsored Brother International teammates, won the first of his U.S. Open Team Championships. Of course since he worked at it, he’d have a number of “outside-the-Sport” sponsors, and such “inside’ ones as Butterfly, Asti, Stiga, and (PHOTO #16) Sitco Robots. I wasn’t the only one who (PHOTO #17) marveled at his patented (sponsor-taught?) TABLE TENNIS IS FUN! wide, open-mouthed smile. Throughout the years, Sean seems to have given (PHOTO #17-A) an endless number of coaching clinics and exhibitions— so no wonder repeatedly he’ll be deserving of the Coach of the Year award. In addition to exhibitions in such diverse places as a Washington Bullets game, a church, a racetrack, he’d offer private coaching, put out videos, do trade shows, seek consultation work, and contribute to our national magazine such instructional lessons as “How to be a Champion” and “21 Tips to Victory.” Once, visiting his friend (PHOTO #18) Dr. Michael Scott, he even tried to instruct himself—on how to water ski. Disaster. He floundered like a salmon on a hook, had no chance of getting up given the speed of the boat, but with his characteristic determination half-drowned trying.
1990—and where was Sean? Traveling. “A sixteen-hour plane ride, a two-hour bus ride, a twenty-minute mini-van ride, a one hour subway ride, and finally a seven hour train ride”—this was what it took to get him to the Western Japan Open. And, no, after all that, Sean didn’t win the Singles. But (PHOTO #19) he and Canada’s Joe Ng did take the Doubles. And afterwards, Sean said, I was so excited. I spent the night writing 30 postcards to friends and family telling them of our victory.
Sean’s served as a National, International, and Olympic Athlete representative, and in recent years has gone into overdrive as the USOC’s medal-winning Paralympic Lead Coach. (PHOTO #20) Here are some of the players at his training camp prior to the 2006 World Championships in Switzerland—(l to r: Ed Levy, Tahl Leibovitz, Sean, Andre Scott, and Norm Bass). Also, with his computer expertise he’s created an online document for the National Coaches and National Team players, including the USA cadets and others—like (PHOTO #20-A) U.S. World Team member and Women’s U-21 Champion Jackie Lee whom he himself coaches. Now they can all study their matches on line at any time. Of course Sean himself during his prime years was on a number of U.S. Teams to World Championships. Here he is (PHOTO #21) on the 1991 Men’s Team that brought the U.S. back into the First Division.
Sean has five U.S. National Singles Championships to his credit. In winning the 1988 U.S. Closed at Caesars Palace, Sean got not the gold but the silver. (PHOTO #22) Flanked by MC Bobby Riggs (left) and Caesars executive Neil Smyth, Sean was sitting pretty—on $5,000 in silver dollars. One of the National’s Sean didn’t win, in 1994, best characterizes him, his unparalleled tenacity. Down 2-0 and 20-13 match point to 5-time U.S. Champion David Zhuang, Sean wins, amazingly, 9 points in a row to force a fourth game! In addition to his Closed Singles Championships, Sean has (PHOTO #23) three Mixed Doubles wins with Diana Gee, and 5 Men’s Doubles titles—two with Zhuang, and one each with Eric Boggan, Danny Seemiller, and (Photo #24) Hank Teekaveerakit, who though living with the O’Neill family—no, he wasn’t gonna dump—had beaten Sean in their 1986 Men’s Closed final.
(PHOTO # 25) To go over Sean’s multi-faceted career is really a humbling experience. It’s a colossal compendium of excellence—30 years of ultra-diverse professional expertise. Sean once said, “I would like to leave a mark in table tennis where after I finish competing, people would say, ‘Have you ever heard of Sean O’Neill?’ That means something to me.”
And to us too. Ladies and Gentlemen, please leave no doubt that the Sean O’Neill we honor tonight will indeed be long remembered.