You would never know – if you didn’t know. There’s nothing in her office that would give it away. No trophies, no photos … nothing to allude to a past life in the spotlight.
Insook Bhushan, a soft-spoken accountant in the Colorado Department of Military and Veterans Affairs budget office in Centennial, Colo., is actually a two-time Olympian and a U.S. national table tennis champion.
Bhushan, the oldest of four, was born in 1952 in Seoul, South Korea, during the Korean War stalemate. Her father, George, was part of the resistance who fought underground against the Japanese Army’s occupation of Korea during World War II. At the time of Bhushan’s birth, her father worked as an economist for the U.S. Embassy in Seoul. Her mother, Chu Suk, was a housewife.
Bhushan began playing table tennis at 13, which by today’s standards, would be far too old to ponder new Olympic aspirations; but Bhushan admits she really had no ambitions of playing competitively. She simply enjoyed the game.
“I had no goals when I first began playing. My mother pushed me toward it more for the social side of things. I really didn’t think much about it at the time. I wanted to play a sport,” Bhushan said. “As I played it more and more, it was hard to turn back. My coach had invested so much time in me and I began making friends, so I stuck with it.”
Bhushan’s career began to blossom – so much so that she made the Korean National Team by the time she graduated from high school.
She said table tennis wasn’t extremely popular in Korea in the 1960s, but it had a strong enough following to warrant corporate sponsorships. After completing high school in 1970, she was recruited by the Korean Development Bank team. For the next three years, she was paid to play professionally all over the country.
“We didn’t have to work. It was table tennis six days a week for eight hours a day. You practice, compete and travel playing table tennis,” said Bhushan, who was making an entry-level banker’s salary for playing a sport she enjoyed. “You don’t have anything like that in this country.”
Coming to America
According to the International Table Tennis Federation’s Web site, the South Korean women’s national table tennis team won the World Table Tennis Championships in 1973. Bhushan was part of that team.
It was the first world title claimed by the country in the sport.
Around that time, table tennis began to grow in popularity in South Korea, Bhushan explained, but just as the sport was taking off in South Korea, her father established an import and export business in the New York City and the entire family relocated to Queens.
Bhushan knew little English but enough about table tennis and realized she was a cut above the rest of her competition in her new country. She soon met six-time former men’s singles national table tennis champion Dal Joon “DJ” Lee, who, like herself, had emigrated from South Korea.
Lee operated a table tennis club in Columbus, Ohio, and Bhushan flew there in 1974 to investigate. While there she met her future husband, Shekhar.
“DJ told my future husband that there was a new lady in town that could beat him at table tennis and Shekhar couldn’t believe it because he was a college champ at OSU (Ohio State University) where he was getting his master’s,” Bhushan said. “Well, I beat him, and we started to go out, and in November of 1975 we were married.”
Living with her husband in Columbus, she began playing table tennis full-time again in the mid-’70s, winning prize money at various tournaments around the country. By 1977, she made the women’s national team and won the women’s singles U.S. Open Table Tennis Championship – an annual tournament that invites the sport’s best from around the globe – by defeating the top-ranked Japanese player in a close match.
“I treasure this title the most,” Bhushan said. “The U.S. Open Championships are open to the best international players, so the competition is very tough.”
In 1979, the Bhushans moved to Denver where Shekhar took a job at an architecture firm. They welcomed a baby boy, Austin, in 1980, and Kevin in 1985.
At 36, Bhushan was considered past her prime by Korean table tennis standards, but was the top medal prospect for the U.S. at the 1988 Summer Games.
“You start really young playing a sport in Korea and your peak age is in your early 20s, so from their perspective they (the Korean table tennis team) thought I was too old to compete,” Bhushan said. “It was hard for them to understand that I was competing, but they remembered that I was on the national team when I was living in Korea, so a lot of attention was focused on me. I just wanted to forget about all that and compete, but being that it was my first Olympic games and going back to my country, I was nervous. I was tense.”
Bhushan won two games and lost two in the preliminary round. She failed to make the medal round at the Olympics. China, Korea’s archrival in table tennis, took the women’s gold.
Bhushan was disappointed, but said the tournament was a great experience.
“The Olympic games are something special,” she said. “You represent something so big, so huge – it was amazing.”
After the Olympics, Bhushan’s focus returned to her family. However, she still continued to play table tennis for the U.S. Women’s National team.
In 1991, knowing she would need a career after table tennis, she graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver with a degree in accounting.
“I began to wind down. You have to realize your physical limitations at a certain age,” Bhushan said. “You cannot play table tennis at a professional level forever; but for me, I extended my career a lot longer than most because I was playing in this country. I couldn’t have done that if I had stayed in Korea because the competition is much tougher.”
Barcelona and the Pan American Games
Bhushan tried, but initially failed, to make the women’s U.S. Olympic team in 1992. However, because of a special wild card spot granted by the Olympic committee, she made the cut. Bhushan said the wild card position was selected by the president of the International Table Tennis Foundation.
There wasn’t nearly as much pressure on Bhushan to perform in the ’92 Olympic Games. At 40, she was a veteran among her competitors.
“I didn’t have a whole lot of expectations for those games,” Bhushan said. “I think I played my best, but it was just not good enough at the time. It was my last year and I knew that I wasn’t going to win it all.”
Bhushan again missed the medal round in Barcelona. It was the last table tennis tournament in an illustrious career that included two Olympic appearances, nine Pan American gold medals and one silver in each of the ’83, ’87, and ’91 Pan American Games.
The Pan American Games invite athletes from the Americas to participate in multiple events, similar to the Olympics. The games take place every four years and are held the summer of the year prior to the Olympics.
“Our stiffest competition came from Canada or Cuba in those games,” Bhushan said. “The matches were not nearly as competitive, but still the Pan American Games are sort of like a sister to the Olympic Games, so they’re huge.”
Life after table tennis
These days, Bhushan rarely picks up a paddle. In fact, she doesn’t even have a Ping-Pong table at home. She said “Ping-Pong” is a derogatory term for the sport.
According to Tim Boggan’s “A History of U.S. Table Tennis Vol. 1,”the term “Ping-Pong” was trademarked by American toy company Parker Brothers in 1928.
“Ping-Pong is just hitting the ball back and forth,” Bhushan said. “Table tennis has more technical aspects to it which includes spin and a lot more movement. Ping-Pong has no depth to it. Those who play table tennis do not like to be called Ping-Pong players because it implies that they are recreational players.”
Bhushan admits she isn’t even a recreational player anymore, but still attends table tennis matches from time to time as a spectator.
Now, instead of spending her days indoors hunching over a table tennis table, swatting away at a small, white, plastic ball, she can be found outside on a fairway swinging away at different kind of small, white ball.
“I was indoors my whole life playing table tennis,” Bhushan said. “Now I want to do outdoor activities.”
Bhushan has worked for the Department of Veterans and Military Affairs since 2000 and has no plans to retire any time soon. She’s happy where she is and stays busy.
“I enjoy working here since I have a good boss and have good working relationships with most of the people.”Bhushan is also happy with her table tennis career and has many fond memories the sport.
“It was fun to be able to travel all over the world to compete and make friends,” Bhushan said. “Table tennis was definitely the mainstay of my life.”