With his eye on a place in the top 100, budding table tennis star Craig Howieson talks to Roddy Mackenzie
Craig Howieson, the brightest young talent in Scottish table tennis, has quickly learnt that he must broaden his horizons for his sport.
Last year, the 15-year-old, along with doubles partner Scott Johnston, went to China, at a cost of pound;1,200 each, to train under a notoriously strict regime. Any home comforts were soon a memory for the fifth year pupil at James Gillespie's High in Edinburgh and his partner from Auchterarder High in Perth and Kinross, as they faced early mornings, unfamiliar food and up to eight hours of table tennis a day at a two-week training camp in Beijing.
Even so Craig, who sits Highers in English, maths, history and physical education in the year ahead, has not been put off pursuing his chosen sport. He plans to return to China next summer to build on last year's experiences, as he strives towards his goal of breaking into the world's top 100 within the next 10 years.
"It was an eye-opener for me in China," Craig admits. "The camp was very strict and the food took a bit of getting used to. It was not like the Chinese food you get here. But I adapted fairly quickly, as I did not have a choice.
"I felt really isolated as not many of the Chinese players speak English and had to communicate by sign language."
It gave him an insight into the lengths the world's leading table tennis nation will go to as they seek to maintain the assembly line of talent.
"We had to get up at seven o'clock every morning and we played from 9.30-11.30am and then from 2.30-5.30pm and then again between 6pm and 8pm."
Most of the players attending the camp were aged 10-18, but there were players as young as 6 receiving coaching.
Craig says: "There were players from all over Europe as well as from China, and this was only one of many such camps throughout the country. It showed me just how serious the Chinese are about the game.
"Playing in that environment really improved my game."
Craig won his first senior title, the North Open in Aberdeen, last September. Then at the European Youth Championships in Prague earlier this year, he won 10 of his 13 matches in the team event. He also reached the semi-finals of the British Schools Championships at Lilleshall, England, in July and was a key player in Scotland's winning team in the Six Nations Under-15 Championships.
He is currently ranked sixth in Scotland and has the chance to play for his country at next year's Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.
Craig started playing at home before going along to a local club, where he came under the wing of respected coach Tom Hook.
"My Dad played table tennis when he was younger and we had a table in our attic, so I started playing when I was 9 or 10 and then went along to North Merchiston Boys' Club," he explains.
"I have been coached by Tom for the past five years and it has worked out well for me. I don't think people realise how much you have to put into the game.
"Everyone has played the game at some point but I have friends who play international badminton and they view table tennis as ping-pong and just a hobby. But there is a lot of fitness work involved. I work out on the treadmill, I do biceps curls and sit-ups and work a lot on my reflexes with speed work.
"I train at North Merchiston three times a week and go to Falkirk or Polmont once a week. I've not had a free weekend for the past seven weeks and that's before the season has properly started."
Craig has proved remarkably consistent. At 14, he went through an entire season unbeaten in the Premier Division of the Edinburgh and Lothian Senior Table Tennis League.
But he would never be satisfied confining himself to his own borders. He is in the six-strong training squad for the Commonwealth Games next year but knows that the squad will shortly be cut to four and he is presently a borderline case.
Time is certainly on his side, as he is still eligible for the European Youth Championships in Sarajevo next year.
And he is achieving results in spite of limited financial backing. He receives a grant from the Scottish Sports Aid Foundation and has an agreement with table tennis equipment manufacturers Butterfly, which entitles him to a 40 per cent discount.
That would change if he managed to play in the Commonwealth Games, but he knows it is a precarious living being involved in sport full-time.
After he leaves school, Craig can continue his sport and combine it with studies at either Grantham College or the Bristol Academy of Sport, which actively promote the game. But he could also choose to follow the lead of Scottish number two Gavin Rumgay, from Perth, who has played for the last couple of years in Sweden.
"If you can get into the top 100 in the world, then you can make a lot of money from table tennis," Craig points out.
"Hopefully, I can improve enough to get a contract to play in one of the European Leagues - in France, Sweden or Germany - but I'll just need to wait and see.
"My intention now is to take a year out after I finish school, to concentrate on my table tennis and see how far I can go. It will mean moving elsewhere, as it is impossible to get the right sort of competition in Scotland and there is no money here."