Jim Butler is different from most table tennis players. At 6'4" and 170 pounds, he's tall and bony, not short and wiry. He relies on quick hands and long arms, not foot speed. And he prefers backhands to forehands. During rallies he waves his arms furiously, and he takes giant, high-stepping strides with his scrawny legs. Imagine Ichabod Crane wielding a paddle.
Away from the table Butler, 25, strays even further from the norm. He practices in Sweden, a table tennis hotbed, believe it or not. His training routine includes meditation. He eats little meat, and he undergoes colonic treatments, which, he believes, increase his strength and stamina. For a bad back he receives chiropractic-style treatment from a Cherokee medicine man. "It is definitely not a mainstream approach," Butler's coach, Christian Lillieroos, says with a laugh.
U.S. table tennis has never seen anyone like Butler, which may be why he is on his way to becoming the best player the country has ever produced. "My goal has always been to be in the world Top 20," says Butler, who is currently ranked 82nd and has been No. 1 in the U.S. for three years. "[To get there] I have taken a different approach to my game and to life."
It seems to be paying off. Last year Butler, who lives in Augusta when he is in the States, moved up to the first division in Sweden's professional league, in which he played seven months a year from 1990 to '95. And in February he dominated the U.S. Olympic Trials, going 18-0 and earning his second trip to the Games.
Success like this demands great skill and dedication. High-level table tennis features frenzied rallies in which the ball travels 100 mph, with more spin than a presidential press conference. Butler excels because he has developed a lethal backhand smash and a sensational serve that is so well disguised that opponents never know what kind of delivery—hard, soft, long, short—is coming. He also has a fiery temper. Once, when he was 10, Jim chastised the world men's champion, Guo Yuehua, who had just trounced him with little effort in a goodwill scrimmage in China. "I was upset because he didn't play his hardest," Butler says. Impressed, Guo predicted that the boy would someday be world champ.
Lately he has looked the part. Between November 1993 and September 1995 Butler beat the world's third-ranked player, Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden; won his third U.S. nationals title; reached the U.S. Open semifinals (the first U.S. player to do so in 12 years); was named MVP at the World Team Cup; and saw his world ranking rise from 134 to 71. However, he was not satisfied. "I had gotten the most I could out of my skills," he says. "I needed to change to take the next step." In October 1995 he hired Lillieroos, a Swedish ex-player renowned for unorthodox coaching methods. "He needed to improve his technique and physique," Lillieroos says of Butler.
Under Lillieroos's guidance Butler added more weightlifting to his daily six-hour training sessions. He mastered a backhand loop, improved his forehand and worked on his timing. He also launched a "cleansing" process, giving up junk food, cutting back on meat and taking colonics. Then he began meditating to tap what he calls his inner energy and to improve his concentration, which occasionally wavered in matches. The program took its toll at first. Butler's beanpole frame shed pounds it couldn't spare. Next his back acted up, sidelining him for a month. When he returned, he stumbled in tournaments. Many criticized his training and nutrition regimens, and even Butler had doubts going into the Olympic trials. "I was scared I'd taken too much of a risk," he concedes.
Nevertheless, he played sharply at the trials. The bolstered forehand confused opponents, the backhand loop kept them off balance. Butler covered the table like a blanket, too. "There were no weaknesses in his game," said longtime rival Sean O'Neill, whom Butler beat 21-16, 21-19, 21-11.
But Butler figures his game can improve even further. "I never felt better," he says. Perhaps he'll even be good enough to win a medal for the U.S. in Atlanta. That would be something really different.