I play ping pong every Thursday evening at 6:15 p.m.
The Dawson table tennis club has generated attention from the media over past year. One name in particular: Laurie Sokolowski.
In November 2010, Laurie went to Ottawa for the Canadian Para Table Tennis Championships.
(A great article about that trip, “Talk to the Hand: Dawson’s Table Tennis Champ Heads to Ottawa”, by Lesley Grant, appears in the November 18, 2010 issue of What’s Up Yukon.)
She emerged with a gold medal in the wheelchair team category.
For me, though I train with Laurie, it’s purely recreational (for now, anyway).
Along with a growing list of ping pongers (there are approaching 20 players, double from when we started over a month ago), I come out to smack my weekly frustrations into an iridescent orange plastic ball.
Especially for us nerdy types, who are perpetually glued to a chair and hunched over a keyboard, it’s a great stress release!
However, the game is not taken lightly. Not with Laurie in the room.
I thought I knew how to play ping pong, until I got schooled.
Laurie swirls around on her wheelchair as fast as the ball flies through the air. With my aim and wild hand, it flies through the air more than it hits the table. But Laurie is patient.
“Shoulders down, elbows in!” she coaches me.
I sigh with frustration.
When I was a kid, it was simple.
I grew up in a sport-oriented family. We had a ping pong table in our rec room. My older brother, later to become an NCAA tennis player and coach, gave me the advantage by playing on his knees with his left hand. He won every game.
Playing Alex, I learned how to crush the ball. Out of sibling rivalry and efforts to peg my opponent, the point was to hit as hard as I could.
Under Laurie’s critical guidance, I’ve relearned the basics.
Starting with the grip, I hold the wooden handle like a hand shake, my thumb and forefinger extending along the bottom of the rubber head.
Balancing the ball in the centre of my left flattened palm, I give my opponent full view of the orange fluorescence before I toss it a few inches into the air, swing my mallet back, and connect with the ball as it falls and my right arm follows through.
My mallet face is too open and the ball soars over the edge of the table without bouncing.
Serving was the most difficult to relearn. Previously, I tucked the ball into my hand and gave a brisk, dirty stroke.
Nailing the timing took the greater part of my first hour-long session. The following week, it happened.
“You got it!” Laurie squealed.
“I did?” I asked, pausing in a spew of conversation.
“You did! Now do it again.”
For the first few weeks, I had private lessons with Laurie. The past two weeks, I’ve had an opponent, which, unfortunately for my opponent, brings out the vivacious competitive spirit of my youth.
Last week we played doubles.
I am not good at sharing the court. In doubles, sharing is essential.
It’s kind of like dancing with footwork, rhythm of bodies moving in and out and around each other, and acute awareness of where your partner is in anticipation of their next movement.
Partners alternate hitting the ball, which means one partner has to be in ready position (knees slightly bent, mallet forward, feet spread a shoulder-width apart) behind the other.
It works when your partner makes the shot and slides to the side while you take the return.
It doesn’t when, in a mad panic to get the ball, or in a lapse of concentration, you both go for it, rackets clap and bodies collide. (Or the opposite happens and both of you stare at each other as the ball sails between you and the opponent scores.)
As the temperature plummets and the Klondike Valley descends into darkness, we seek ways to keep ourselves warm. A weekly battle over the ping pong table loosens our wool sweaters, breaks a sweat and gets us laughing.
With the ice setting on the rink-side of the lobby windows next to the ping pong table, curling season is gearing to start. My ping pong membership also buys me a curling membership. Let the games roll on.