Rising star Owen Cathcart tipped to become major hit as he sets sights on the 2020 Olympics
Teenager has bright future after success on world tour
Belfast teenager Owen Cathcart is only just coming to terms with his history-making weekend but the men who have nurtured his talent say this is only the beginning.
The 14-year-old became the first person from Northern Ireland to ever win a world pro-tour table tennis event when he triumphed in the ITTF Belgian Cadet Open on Sunday and his coaches believe the win could be the first step on a road that ultimately leads to the Olympics.
Owen, a pupil at Aquinas Grammar, has already represented Ireland at senior level and has a bronze medal from his time with the Northern Ireland team at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships last year, but says the most recent win is certainly his career highlight to date.
"It only really sunk in a few hours after the match," he recalls from Ormeau Table Tennis Club where fellow members had gathered on Sunday to watch his thrilling five-game final against Spain's Sergi Grau.
"I didn't really realise what I'd achieved until then. With the nerves and stuff kicking in it took a while but once all the stress left, it was an unreal feeling. It just felt great to be standing on the podium. Number one at a world event is unbelievable. It's the best feeling."
Owen's first sporting experiences came at Bredagh GAC in south Belfast but with table tennis taking up so much of his time, he is now wholly dedicated to a training regime that requires six hours of practice a day.
"To be good you have to put in so many hours," he says of the sport he took up only by chance when his sister began to play.
"You can't improve as you need to if you're playing three sports. It's a load of training but it's what I enjoy. School can be quite good about it. When I miss classes with tournaments they give me chances to get caught up and stuff like that."
Having already achieved one notable first, Owen has no intention of stopping there and, with a schedule that includes tournaments in Spain and Czech Republic before a month's training in China, he is targeting success at the European Youth Championships in Zagreb this summer.
For Irish coach John Murphy, Owen has all the talent to be the sport's first Olympian from this island.
"Table tennis has been in the Olympics since 1988 and Ireland has never had a representative but Owen could change that," says Murphy, himself a five-time Irish champion.
"He's been improving tournament to tournament for the last 18 months. We're almost waiting for him to have a lull but it just hasn't happened.
"The youngest European player to qualify for the Rio Olympics this year is 22 so Owen has plenty of time to hone his skills.
"The progression that he's on though, I wouldn't rule out Tokyo 2020 as a real possibility."
For now, the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics in 2018 is a more immediate aim with those at Ormeau Table Tennis Club hoping that success for Owen can kick-start local interest.
Keith Knox, head coach at the club established just over three years ago, says: "We've never been in this position before where there's been a player of such high level. This could really help table tennis take off. It certainly puts the sport on the map.
"I think from national level right down to club, everything is improving across the board and there's a lot more to come."
Central to that is the Ormeau Club itself, now in permanent residence off the Woodstock Road in Belfast, it is Northern Ireland's first full-time facility.
Having originally started as three tables in Ormeau Park, the club has grown from strength to strength with a membership that ranges in age from four to 84 and boasts an ever-growing number of adult beginners.
"Owen was our first member and the club has been a big success off the back of that," explains Knox. "We've 140 members now and we're hoping to have 200 to 250 by this time next year.
"In the likes of France and Germany, what we have is the norm. It'll be funded by the sports councils. We had to do a lot of it ourselves and in doing so we were the first club of its kind."
With scenes like the weekend just past, all that hard work is certainly paying off.
For more information, visit www.ormeautabletennis.com