The truth is that I knew it long before this moment. I’ve felt the momentum steaming uncontrollably toward one thought, but as a single bead of sweat collects and creeps its way down the left side of my face it finally, fully registers: I’m seriously getting my butt kicked.
That harsh reality presenting itself in complete-sentence form through my own mind makes me stop for a second and compare to where I was just an hour prior. Sliding on a crew neck sweater and sweat pants, it was then I had walked out my apartment door at 9:50 a.m. on Saturday with an optimism based on years of favorable results.
I had done this hundreds — bordering on thousands — of times growing up, and never once found myself facing this kind of situation. Sure, it had been a few years since the last time in college, but certainly not long enough for me to have lost my game. I was simply in the presence of people much, much better than me, in the middle of the Northfield Senior Center, reaching down to pick up yet another ball one of my opponents has landed on my side of the table one more time than theirs. I had walked in the door ready to play some ping pong, and am now very much in the midst of being schooled by my elders in table tennis.
One of the best material gifts I ever received from my parents growing up came in a box so large I didn’t know right away what it was. Inside was a top that laid across our pool table, and it shortly thereafter semi-permanently changed the name of the “pool table room” into the “ping pong table” room.
Thanks to the fortuitous combination of that table, my parent’s house being just two blocks away from Cooper High School, and a well-stocked fridge and pantry, my buddies and I practically started a new religion. Every day after school — never during, of course — and before practice, we would head to 48th Ave. and fire up the paddles. A rotating cast of about 10 different guys got in on the singles and doubles brawls, with a champion’s belt getting passed throughout.
Thanks as much to proximity as anything, those belts found their way to my waist pretty often. An open-door policy meant there were plenty of times guys played at our house when I wasn’t around, but I got in on way more matches than anybody else and enjoyed the well-polished game that came out of that practice.
After graduation many of us headed off to different colleges and enjoyed some dorm hall success from our still-sharp games. A couple of buddies who were toward the middle of the pecking order at my parent’s house won a University of Minnesota Duluth ping pong tournament our freshman year, and I mashed my way through Brady Hall’s tournament at the University of St. Thomas.
Those kinds of performances gave us all some assurance we hadn’t completely wasted countless hours of our lives chasing plastic around the same room all through high school, even if the assurance came by chasing more plastic around different rooms at college. Since then I’ve only played a couple of times, but that was enough that when a guy named Russ walked into the Northfield News last week and asked if I had played table tennis before I said yes. A few minutes later I walked back to my desk with his number and instructions to show up to the senior center for an invite-only session.
It’s the spin.
I’ve worked now for the better part of an hour now to train my paddle to cut across the same axis of the twisting ball, countering the tight rotation made by my opponents and lacing it back toward them. Looking down at the padded felt, one side red and one black, I lament the years of playing with hard-wood paddles, which equate to almost an entirely different game. The paddle in my right hand now is just like that my friend, Andy, used when we were growing up, and the only thing thicker than his padding was his skin from all the abuse we gave him for playing with such an object. Now, I desperately wish he would have let me use it on occasion.
It’s too late for that now as I stand on the “east” table next to my doubles partner for the morning. Behind our opponents’ backs is a mirror to reflect both our ugly and spectacular moments back at us in reverse, and to our left are another two tables spread throughout this large, hardwood room. Two long, snaking mats divide the three tables, cutting the space into doubles games on the outsides and a singles game in the middle.
My partner continues to encourage me as I work to solve the funky sauce our rotating cast of opponents cook up, but all too often my sporadic glimpses of greatness are interrupted by dumping shots into the net or sailing them long. So it goes as the clock winds its way past 11:15 with me and my partner still win-less. Playing to 11 each game we’ve gone down multiple times in tie-breakers, twice burned by unstoppable, net-crawling winners that simply add insult to injury.
Then, at 11:24, we shuffle up pairings and my new partner and I come out on fire. Four straight points give way to five, six, and seven, and before I even have a chance to think about it we lead 10-4 and can serve for the win. A backspin serve from my partner gets followed by a backhand smash by our opponent, and, somehow, it sails just inches past the bordering white of the table.
My fingers flex around my paddle in celebration as the tension of constant defeat and frustration finally surrenders to the formerly-familiar feel of victory. I turn to my partner to catch his reaction only to find him already headed for the other side of the table, oblivious to my excitement and completely ready to move on to the next match. Just as he had through the 20 games we’ve already played.
That, I realize, is Saturday morning at the Northfield Senior Center.
I had been told before I even showed up that the people who played were serious. I was warned that some of the best players of this age group in Minnesota came to play. I didn’t think that would matter.
I was wrong.
These men and women can flat ball out in a table tennis — no ping pong around here — game. By joining the Saturday morning session I hopped right in with some of the same people that play in national-level tournaments and found out exactly why, one brutal point after another.
So, as I walked out to the parking lot just before noon, I had plenty of things to take away with me. The first was the reinforcement of prior lessons to never assume that you’re going to be better than somebody, regardless of age, gender or body type. The second was an appreciation for the fact that you can find the coolests things anywhere and everywhere. I now have a “table tennis guy” in Northfield, and a standing invitation to come back to the senior center and play with people better than anyone I have ever seen.
Of course, I’ve been relegated from the major leagues of Saturday morning down to the Monday night minors to hone my game. It’s going to take some work before I have a chance again at the show, and with a little practice and some time I might just get the call.
I’m not sure exactly what it takes to make it in the table tennis world of Northfield, but I do know this: I need to call Andy and ask him to lend me his padded paddle.
Reach Sports Editor Jordan Osterman at 645-1111, or follow him on Twitter.com @NFNJordan.