A Trip to the 2015 Toronto Parapan Am Games
I have not often been rewarded for being annoying, or for being a senior citizen, but those traits seemed to do the trick for Jennifer Johnson and me at the 2015 Parapan Am Paralympic qualifying tournament in Toronto in August. Playing doubles in the class 4-5 wheelchair table tennis team event
As a Hall of Famer and winner of Paralympic gold medals in 1988 and 1996, Jennifer, a grandmother of two, was an early pick for the 2015 Parapan Am team. I came to the sport just four years ago as a grandmother of 12. Jennifer is originally from Jamaica and contracted polio at the age of 5. I was stricken with transverse myelitis at age 58. I felt honored to be Jennifer’s doubles partner, and, it turned out, her roommate, too. We were a perfect pair. We laughed easily together and cautioned each other not to put too much pressure on ourselves and to have fun.
Our first laughs came when we picked up our coveted Olympic “swag” at the credentials and uniforms processing center, which served the 1,608 para-athletes from 28 countries, competing in 15 sports. Volunteers presented us with Nike sports bags, T-shirts, track suits, jackets, backpacks, caps, and Oakley sunglasses. Jennifer and I each had a “dresser” assigned to help us try on clothes. My dresser would hold up an item of clothing and say, “This size looks good.” I would say, “Looks a little small,” then she would try to squeeze me into the garment. At the same time, on the other side of the room, Jennifer’s dresser was doing exactly the same thing.
Apparently, only Jennifer and I were aware of the echo in the room. We knew our granny bodies. We knew that the clothes cut for nondisabled young women were not made for our gravity-enhanced figures. But the dressers didn’t catch on easily; they would bring out one size larger and say, “This looks good,” and we would individually answer, “I don’t think so.” It was almost midnight, and we grew goofily tired.
Then, the dressers showed us the red bikini underwear. We looked at each other and laughed. “No way.” There was no way we would ever fit into that underwear, nor would we wear it if it did fit. Then, the dressers shared that athletes were encouraged to post pictures of themselves wearing the briefs to promote “Team USA.” Once again we laughed and responded in unison, “I don’t think so!”
We finally agreed on our clothes, although many were still too small, and we headed to the athletes’ village. We dragged into our smallish room, transferred out of our wheelchairs, and grabbed some quick sleep before practice early the next morning. A teammate’s nondisabled mom came by in the morning to see if we needed any help with our luggage or to set up our rooms. She looked at the nightstand, pointed and said, “What’s that!?”
“Oh, that’s Tawny,” Jennifer answered. It was her wig. She had brought two, but this one, a tawny shade, would be the one she would wear for table tennis. A nickname was born. “Come on, Tawny,” I said. “Let’s get down to breakfast.”
After practice we took stock of our physical challenges. After months of intensive training we were fit and ready to play, but also we had to take care of special issues. Jennifer had barely finished rehabbing a hurt shoulder, and Biofreeze was her constant companion. She regularly sought out the chiropractor and physical therapist, and she iced and rested her shoulder as much as possible.
A UTI visited me almost as soon as we arrived, as did an abrasion on my backside, compliments of a bad transfer by ill-trained airport special services staff at the Toronto airport. So I had daily trips to the team doctor for cleaning and dressing of the small wound.
Although we didn’t recover as quickly from day-to-day as we had when we were younger, we kept to the schedule of multiple hours of training and two hours a day of bumpy, jarring bus rides to and from the table tennis venue. We ate and rested prudently.
Brain Over Brawn
After a week of training, the competition began with the pomp and circumstance befitting the stakes of the event and the effort that every athlete had made to get there. A gold medal in singles would send either of us to the Paralympics in Rio in 2016. Neither Jennifer nor I prevailed in singles, although she was just a few points away from a victory against a Venezuelan that would have earned her a medal.
In para table tennis, athletes are grouped by their functional abilities resulting from their impairment. Classes are designed to group athletes equitably for competition. Classes 1-5 are for those in wheelchairs; classes 6-10 for those who have disabilities that allow them to play standing. Within those groups the higher the classification, the more function the athlete has. Class 11 is for players with an intellectual disability.
My most noteworthy singles match was against the eventual gold medal winner from Mexico. Two of my grandsons, Caden, 13, and A.J., 12, who had travelled from Utah and California to support me, were in the stands with my partner, Shelly. Their excitement and cheering helped me to play my best. I won one set in losing 3-1, but it was a joy to have the boys see me as a contender.
That left us with the doubles team event for a chance to medal. We were not surprised that the Mexicans and the Brazilians were too tough for us, but we thought we had a chance against a young Colombian team whose players were less than a third of our age. We took care to watch them train in the practice hall, and we saw that they were strong hitters. They didn’t show a great variety in their shots, however, and they seemed impatient.
Both Jennifer and I had worked with a coach who had said, “At your age you are not going to beat opponents with power. You are going to beat them by being consistent, by outthinking them, and by being mentally tough.” His main advice: “Be as annoying as possible! Do not give them anything to hit.” So that was our game plan: Outfox the young ones. Be annoying.
Our coach for the match urged us to play persistently and not get into a hitting match with our young opponents. It worked. We won the first two games and we could see the Colombians growing more and more frustrated. Still, it was obvious that they had trained as a team. They had hand signals for how they were going to serve, and between points they shared strategy by whispering to each other behind their paddles.
Jennifer and I had never played together before. We didn’t have any elaborate strategy, and we didn’t want to change the rhythm of our serving by having to remember hand signals. At the same time, we didn’t want to let on that we were basically keeping to one serving style. So before each point we put our paddles in front of our faces and whispered to each other. We feigned serious exchanges when all along we were saying things like, “How’s it going, Tawny? You going to wear that same wig out to dinner?” or “That was sure nice of the grandsons to come watch us play.” We hid from them that we were laughing, and showed only our game faces.
The patience of the grannies won the day and the match, 3-0. To win the bronze we also had to win one singles match. Jennifer did exactly that to earn our “podium moment” and the bronze medal. Neither of us qualified for the Paralympics, but we felt as if we had represented ourselves, our country, our kids and our grandchildren well.
Be Like Grammy
After returning home to California I sat down to Sunday dinner with my daughter, her husband, and their four children. I hadn’t seen them in several months, and I was feeling guilty for having spent so much time playing ping-pong. I feared that I had misplaced what’s important in life. So I was hesitant as I announced that I had some show-and-tell and passed around my bronze medal. “Wow, it’s heavy! This is pretty cool, Grammy! How’d you get this? This is awesome. There’s Braille on the back!”
Then 7-year-old Berlin went upstairs and came back down holding a small, zippered makeup kit. She was reaching inside to show us something. Was it lipstick or gloss or blusher that her mom had given her?
Berlin had recently and reluctantly agreed to play on a recreational soccer team with her two brothers. For the first game she sat on the sidelines unwilling to participate. She claimed she was too tired, having walked from the car to the field. During another game she went out in the field, and actually did a bit of running. She handed me the little makeup case. “I want you to see it first, Grammy.”
I opened it and pulled out a simple plastic medal about the size of a half dollar attached to a red, white and blue ribbon. On the medal you could see a soccer shoe with Mercury wings. “I won it for playing soccer,” she said demurely.
I told her how proud I was of her, and I could tell by the smiles around the table that they were all proud of me, too. At that moment I decided that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo weren’t really that far off. And the Parapan Ams? They will be in Lima, Peru in 2019. I’ll be 72, and Jennifer will only be 70.
• For more information about table tennis in the United States, explore www.teamusa.org/USA-Table-Tennis, click on “Para” at the top of the home page. Para program director: Jasna Rather, 817/715-4062; email@example.com
• For information on international table tennis tournaments and camps, explore the International Table Tennis Federation’s home page: www.ittf.com, click on Para TT, or go directly to ipttc.org