Eighty-five-year-old Bill Brin walks slowly into the room, looking as if a brisk breeze might topple his delicate frame. His T-shirt tucks into gym shorts that rise well past his waist. A neck brace sits awkwardly on his shoulders.
Only his trucker hat – showing two stick figures playing a game of ping pong – hints at what’s about to happen. As soon as Brin gets a paddle in his hand, he transforms into a hurricane. His paddle flies furiously. He smokes a cross-court backhand winner. He lunges to intercept a short volley. Between points, he rocks back and forth, his brow furrowed, his game face on.
Brin has been playing table tennis with his wife Harriet for over 60 years; they are two of the most memorable – and decorated – members of the Monterey County Table Tennis Club.
“You go into their house and see all these trophies,” says MCTTC President Gil Garcia, “Those two are really amazing. For their age, their hand-eye coordination is just unbelievable. They are how I want to be when I grow up.”
The pair keeps each others’ skills sharp by practicing for 30 minutes a night; the club, meanwhile, gathers every Monday and Thursday evening at 7pm. Perhaps because the sport is known for improving hand-eye coordination and mental alertness, many of its members have doctorates and teach or conduct research at Defense Language Institute. But whether scientists, doctors, meteorologists or pathologists, like Brin, they are transformed once a paddle finds their hand: They’re purely ping pong players – profession, education, size, age and gender mean nothing.
The sport has helped MCTTC member Josh Kim, 16, undergo his own transformation. He started playing after a serious and mysterious autoimmune disorder triggered fierce fevers, painful sensitivity to touch and school absences. “At first, he barely had energy to hold the paddle,” his father, YJ Kim says, “but he tried playing slowly but steadily.”
Since his illness prevented him from playing more strenuous sports, ping pong provided a source of motivation and exercise, doubling as a sanctuary and a salvation. His dad credits the sport as part of Josh’s physical recovery, and the competitive tests table tennis provided steeled him mentally to conquer obstacles to his health. As he’s stuck with it, both his wellbeing and his skills improved. He even went on to found a table tennis club at York School.
“For me, the most enjoyable part about table tennis is the challenge,” Josh says, “and the opportunity to learn something new every time you play.”
MCTTC members often learn something about other cultures when they get together. Club members from around the world use club websites to locate like-minded athletes wherever they travel.
“We get people from all over coming in. We have had people from Russia and Germany, here on vacation,” Garcia says. “And on the weekends, we get a lot of kids in here. Members bring their kids, so you can see why we need a bigger place.”
As membership pushed past 40, the tight-knit group found it increasingly difficult to move around the five tables they squeezed in a small, funky space in a Seaside storefront at the University Plaza strip mall – which precipitated a transformation for the club itself.
After negotiating a deal with the American Legion in Marina, the club now has room for eight tables and a small sea of spectators. The thrilled MCTTC members hope to make it their permanent home.
But as much as the club’s members like their new spot, that doesn’t keep them from frequently leaving it – they’re often trekking around California and beyond to compete in tournaments. Events in Berkeley, San Diego and even some out-of-state competitions reunite them with scores of other ping pong enthusiasts and allow them an opportunity to compete across a range of age and skill divisions.
“I enjoy watching and trying to see what [Bill] is doing that could be better,” Harriet says, “Although, usually he does better if I’m not watching.”
He’s done well enough to gather dozens of local and regional medals (as has Harriet) – most recently, he took the gold in men’s doubles at the 2009 Huntsman World Series Games in Saint George, Utah. For members of the USA Table Tennis Association like the Brins, their results are forwarded to USATT headquarters, where they are then figured into the players rating, which dictates at which level they compete.
While MCTTC players like to brag about their fellow members’ ratings, competitive excellence isn’t exactly their primary aim (or traditional result) at tournaments. Instead, simply getting together to play is the name of their game.