It's not the speed of the game or blocking amazing shots or even scoring that draws Kristin Grogan to competitive foosball. It's those who share her love of the sport and the intellectual aspect of the game, she says.
"The community of people in the sport, competitively, are really what make it so great," she said.
Grogan, a Jessup resident, has taken her love of the popular table game to an international stage. She'll be tested in all aspects of the game Wednesday through April 12, as she competes in the World Foosball Championships and the World Cup in Turin, Italy, as part of Team USA.
Foosball is table soccer, in which competitors attempt to score goals using figures attached to handles.
For many, foosball is a game of basement recreation rooms, arcades and pool halls. In fact, it was in a pool hall near Denver in 1986 when Grogan first stepped up to a foosball table. That area, she said, was a hotbed for the sport, and she was fortunate to have access to some of the world's best foosball players.
She quickly developed a talent and a passion for the game.
"I was in my late teens when I started to get competitive with it," Grogan said. "Some of the greatest players in the world have come out of Denver. It is the mecca of foosball, and I met some amazing teachers and players there. They encouraged me to go" professional.
In addition to the thrill of the game, Grogan said the sport is appealing because it's inclusive.
"It is a skill that can be developed by anyone; it's not limited by gender or age or even disability," Grogan said. In fact, Team USA supports a disabled team; two men representing the Team USA disabled squad will also compete in Turin.
Knowing how to block shots and move quickly enough to score is part of the game, but Grogan said the real challenge involves strategy, as well as trying to figure out what your opponent is thinking.
"The analytical and intellectual aspect of the game are the most challenging," Grogan said. "You have to be strong in these areas to truly become great.
"Strategy, thinking steps in advance, knowing when to adjust and the most interesting one — knowing when [your opponent] has figured out what you're thinking — it's all a part of the game."
A technical writer in the telecommunications industry, Grogan said few competitive foosball players can support themselves on the money made in the sport; many players move into playing in poker tournaments as well, she said.
"Very few of us actually survive off foosball," she said.
Still, passion rules. When not at work, Grogan can likely be found doing something foosball-related, including spending time with her boyfriend, John Lee, a skilled foosball player from Baltimore and tournament director for International Foosball Promotions.
"We all have a life, but outside of the standards of work and school — it's all foosball," she said. "Typically, that's our primary activity outside of the typical responsibilities of life."
Although Team USA works to gain funding through corporate sponsors and donations, Grogan said players foot the bill for any expenses that aren't covered.
She said she travels regularly to practice with her partners. Her women's partner, Jackie Han, lives in Texas, and her other partner, Todd Loffredo, is in California. Grogan competes in both singles and doubles, and competes as often as once a month in events across the United States.
Han, 21, has been playing foosball competitively for three years and calls Grogan "one of my closest friends."
"I enjoy hanging out with her outside of foosball, which makes it easier to practice and spend a lot of time together competing," Han said. "She's very analytical, and we think alike and communicate well. She keeps me going.
"Our playing styles are very different, so we learn from each other," she added. "We talk about new techniques, new strategies. She has so much experience in the game, and it's been really cool to learn from that."
Grogan has won numerous awards and titles over the years. She is the only female from a major tournament to win both open doubles and women's doubles titles, and one of just a few women with multiple open doubles titles. Last year was her first trip to compete outside the United States, playing for Team USA in Nantes, France.
The International Table Soccer Federation — they don't formally call it foosball — will host two events this week in Turin: the World Championships and the World Cup. Grogan will compete in both.
According to the Team USA website, the World Championships involve players who qualify by winning selected events and sanctioned tournaments. Players compete against other qualifying opponents, including those from their country. In the World Cup event, players are elected by the Team USA Committee to compete against other countries.
Grogan credits Loffredo, a multiple world champion and her mentor, with encouraging her and helping her achieve goals in foosball.
"This is my second year on [Team USA]. I've broken most barriers for women in the sport thanks to [Loffredo]," she said. "I'm excited and motivated to compete — although I'm realistic. This isn't going to be easy."
Learn more about the sport and Team USA at teamusafoosball.org.