In her pink wheelchair and stylish red and grey shirt, Laurie Sokolowski grins as her dimpled racquet sends the orange table tennis ball over the net to land deep left on her opponent’s side.
The rally continues for several returns under the fluorescent lights of the Dawson Curling Club before the ball skids under a nearby chair. Seeing the break in play, I steal the chance to talk to Sokolowski about her upcoming trip to Ottawa for the 2010 Canadian Para Table Tennis Championships.
Tonight Sokolowski is training, as she does four nights a week, with members of the local ping pong club – a club that didn’t exist until Sokolowski brought her love of table tennis and her considerable talent with her when she and her husband Dan started spending winters in Dawson in 2005.
Since making the move permanent in 2007, Sokolowski has represented Yukon at national and international competitions. At the 2009 Canadian Table Tennis Championships in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, Sokolowski won one gold and two bronze medals, including bronze in the women’s 50-plus event, open to both disabled and able-bodied players.
She was thrilled to be the first disabled athlete to represent Yukon at these games. And she enthusiastically credits the local community for embracing the sport and supporting every aspect of her training and competitions.
Though she’d been active in disabled track, road racing and sit-skiing for years, when she picked up a table tennis paddle in 2000, Sokolowski had not played the game since she was a teen.
She says it is the only sport she was any good at as a kid. In 2000, the para table tennis scene was seeing a resurgence in the Ottawa area, where she then lived. The game was regaining prominence because coach Barry Butler – an accomplished player and advocate of disabled sports – had returned to the National Capital Wheelchair Table Tennis Association.
In the Yukon, the Dawson City Table Tennis Club started with Sokolowski and a small group of friends batting a ball around a table at Robert Service School. The club now includes a regular roster of 16, with five occasional members. Though Sokolowski takes competition seriously, the focus here is definitely on fun.
This is the club’s third year of affiliation with the curling club. Sokolowski describes the relationship as a win-win situation because the three dozen members of the curling club often show up for ping pong, and the table tennis players can take to the ice as well.
(In fact, Sokolowski was a member of last year’s winning curling team, but that’s another story.)
The club runs September to May, and play is scheduled Monday through Thursday. Sokolowski is a fixture every night, with different members rotating through the two-hour session.
On the wall is a “ladder” tracking member standings, with winners earning bragging rights only. Participation is important, so one point is awarded for each game played, two points for a win, and three points for a winning match (best of five games). If players prefer just to rally, that’s fine too.
To keep things fresh, Sokolowski occasionally organizes week-long round-robin tournaments. And after the season’s final tournament there’s a celebratory dinner, which includes Sokolowski awarding humorous prizes.
Sokolowski heads to Ottawa this week to train for two days with her original club prior to the November 20 tournament.
The wheelchair Sokolowski uses is designed for sport, but she acquired it before she took up table tennis. To play competitively, she supplemented the chair with a thick cushion fashioned by local artist Veronica Verkley to raise her to playing level.
For an extra note of Northern pride, friend Karen DuBois silk-screened “Dawson City Yukon” onto the butterfly shirt Sokolowski competes in.
Sokolowski says she gives 110 per cent in competition to pay back the sport – and the community – that has afforded her so many opportunities.
The love-fest seems mutual for the growing number of Dawsonites taking up table tennis. As original (and ongoing) club member Gary Parker is quick to point out, none of them would be playing if it weren’t for Sokolowski.
Sokolowski smiles, whips a spinning backhand shot in response, and scores.
Lesley Grant is looking forward to ping-ponging her way through her first winter in Dawson.