Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Game for the Ages

Falling for Table Tennis

Every October for the past twenty-four years, the Huntsman Senior Games have taken place in St. George, Utah. This year 10,000 athletes who were fifty years of age or older came from around the world and participated in dozens of events including table tennis.

The 190 table tennis players competed in both rated events and in age groups that were divided into five-year increments starting with 50-54 years and going up to 90 years and above. There were ninety-eight youngsters under the age of 70, sixty-four between 70 and 80, twenty-six between 80 and 90, and two over 90-years-old.

Not Quite the Sound of Music

If you listened intently you may have heard the sounds of aged, aching bones creaking and if you looked closely you may have noticed elongated battle scars where a knee or two had been replaced. What is most obvious is the assortment of braces that were used to provide enough support to help keep backs, wrists, elbows and knees in place.

However, participants needed no help whatsoever in keeping their competitive spirits alive not only with a deep desire to win, but more importantly, each male and female player tried to challenge themselves to be the best that they could possibly be.

In Friendly Territory

While there is a measurable intensity once a best three-out-of-five-game match begins, there’s a convivial camaraderie both before any match and after it is over. Competitors practice, kibitz and reminisce together with the latter activity being the most prevalent and pleasant. Stories are told and retold about past performances with some individuals remembering and embellishing past triumphs and successes, and perhaps consciously or unconsciously changing the outcomes as long as there’s no one around who was there when that long ago match was played. But most senior players do remember and playing table tennis may help them to do so.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, professor of surgery at Columbia University believes that table tennis can help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. The game requires hand-eye coordination, quick decision making, and the rapid eye movement of the game requires the brain to do intensely fast analysis. Just predicting where the ball will fall demands mental power and constant recalculation. As a bonus or two, table tennis improves cognitive function, motor function, and is a fun sport to play.

Old Friends and Good Times

During the year, seniors may play in events open to players of all ages by ratings however the ones they truly enjoy most are the ones in their own age bracket. It gives them a chance to see how well they are doing in the sport and in life, compared to their peers. In that way, senior tournaments are like high school graduation reunions where you look around and ask, "Who are all of those old people." With all of the aches and pains, at any tournament, seniors are pleased to be able to move around and grateful when they return a ball with the verve and accuracy that they worried might have disappeared forever.

Last December at the U.S. Nationals tournament in Las Vegas, an eighty-eight-year-old player told me that this was his last tournament for he was too old for the game. He was in St. George as an eighty-nine year old player saying he isn’t ready to retire yet.

Two Words to the Wise

Adam Cintz was a friend who didn’t play table tennis and died this year one month short of his one-hundredth birthday. When a young reporter once asked him what was his secret to living so long, Adam replied, “Don’t die.” That is the best advice for all the seniors who want to continue to play table tennis.

For the story of Adam’s unique life click on this link: