By Julie Forget
Photos courtesy of Thorsten Gohl
From his birthplace of Mainz, Germany to the frigid north of Canada, Thorsten Gohl has used his passion for table tennis to help grow the sport through his commitment to volunteering, his talent for photography, and his ability to find new ways to bring the sport to the masses.
Currently a Board member with Table Tennis Canada where he is also the Chair of the Coaching Development Committee, Gohl is also a recent appointee to the Media Committee of the International Table Tennis Federation. He’s also the Executive Director of Table Tennis North – but none of those positions are his actual ‘day job’.
“I’m currently a physical literacy coordinator for the Government of the Northwest Territories,” says Gohl. “We have federal funding, and they tell me to get people active – so that’s really my job, but it gives me a lot of opportunities, and it helps me to have a lot of time to help and support table tennis in the NWT and in Canada. I spend about 20-40 hours a week just doing volunteer work for Table Tennis North and Table Tennis Canada.”
Gohl started playing table tennis in Germany where he played professionally and also coached, but is quick to point out that he wasn’t at the top level: “When you play in Europe, there are different clubs that just pay you a monthly salary and then when you win matches, you get a bonus. So, I was just good – not the best, but good enough to play in the different divisions.”
He came to Canada in 2007 to visit, and liked it so much that he decided he wanted to stay, but with no professional table tennis leagues available, he had to turn his hand to another one of his passions to make a living – photography. He enrolled in a professional photo imaging program at Langara College in Vancouver in 2009, and when he finished, he had a three-year work permit to stay in the country with the opportunity to apply for residency if he could find work for at least one year.
He was already a Board Member for Table Tennis British Columbia at this time, and had photographed the Canadian Championships in Vancouver in 2012, so he asked Table Tennis Canada if he could work for them for a year to help with brand recognition and sponsorship. After driving to Nova Scotia from Vancouver to prove his photo skills again at the Canadian Championships in Halifax in 2013, they agreed, and he started work as the Brand and Partnerships Manager for the organization where he stayed for one and half years before moving to the NWT in 2015.
“The secret to good table tennis photography is anticipation I would say – knowing what the next step is going to be and enjoying it,” says Gohl who has photographed every Canadian Championships since 2015. “It’s easy for me because I’ve done it so many times, and it’s with all sports now.”
Indeed, it isn’t just table tennis that has benefitted from Gohl’s talent behind the lens, he has also covered other sports including soccer where he was the official photographer for the Vancouver Whitecaps, and was lucky enough to be a photographer at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, as well as the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto where he covered a variety of sports.
In fact, Gohl is a big proponent of working with, and having knowledge of a variety of sports. It’s that knowledge that fueled his determination to start a new pilot project in Hay River, NWT which combined table tennis and hockey to improve hand-eye coordination and reaction time. That project saw great success, and Gohl was recognized for his creation of this innovative program, as well as a female mentorship program he started in 2020, by receiving the Coaching Association of Canada’s Impact Award in 2021.
“I’ve taken many community coaching courses from other sports like hockey, ringette, cross country skiing, etc. just to learn what they’re doing because of my role as the chair of the coach development committee (at TTCAN). It helps me to understand more, and it helps the sport. My getting the Impact Award this year for example, wasn’t so much about me, but about sports coming together and creating opportunities for young females, and about the sport of table tennis and putting a highlight on the sport of table tennis.”
With his work with Table Tennis North, Gohl takes great pride in the school tournament that they now host every year. In its first year in 2016 they had 10 kids show up. The next year – 40, and every year after that they’ve had 150 kids show up to play. “The goal for me every year is to host these school championships and get as many kids as possible involved to play. With table tennis in the NWT, we don’t want to force kids to just do our sport, we want them to be as active as possible, and we want to give them the tools and tricks to become that best version of themselves.”
Gohl’s grand vision for table tennis is to see the sport being played in every school in Canada, but he also sees tons of opportunity to grow the sport in other ways as well.
“I think we need to change our entire idea about table tennis in Canada. Don’t think about tournaments and how we set the standards for the world level. Not that we dismiss it, but we don’t focus on it, and let’s say: ‘let’s go into bars, let’s talk to those people. Let’s talk to the basement players. Let’s do fun activities with those people. Let’s talk to the schools.’ With table tennis you set-up a table, you have two paddles and a ball and let’s go. It doesn’t need to be a professional table – it can be on the floor, against the wall, on an ice table in the middle of Great Slave Lake in the NWT. There are all these opportunities and possibilities and I think we need to focus on that.”
There’s no question that Gohl has had a profound impact on the sport of table tennis in his adopted country of Canada, and will continue to have an impact locally in the NWT, nationally with Table Tennis Canada, and internationally with his work with the International Table Tennis Federation.