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Decades of Experience Are Brought to the Table

The seniors competition at Laguna Woods' Leisure World includes ranked and titled athletes -- even in the over-90 category.

June 04, 2004|Susan Anasagasti | Times Staff Writer

These folks are competitive sorts who take their game seriously. They're hard-core players who soar in front of the tables, dazzling onlookers with their moves.

Just one thing: "Make sure you don't call the sport pingpong," said Ivan Slade, who in 1944 was ranked 17th among the world's table tennis players. "That's how you spot amateurs."

There was nothing amateurish about the more than 220 seniors who gathered Thursday in Laguna Woods for the start of the four-day Meiklejohn National Seniors Table Tennis Tournament, now in its 15th year. The tournament will feature 32 events classified by player rating and age.

Slade, a.k.a. "Ivan the Terrible," had surgery last month to remove a brain tumor. "You can't keep a good man down," the San Marcos resident said. He was born in Switzerland and decided to take up the sport when he was 9. He's 88 now. "The sport keeps me active and healthy, and I love the camaraderie."

Inside the Leisure World gymnasium, seniors competed under chandeliers and a disco ball. Within hours, quick serves and secret forehand techniques separated the elite from the merely talented.

While the participants in the other age categories -- which start at 40 -- compete for $15,000 in cash prizes, the 90-year-olds play solely for a first-place trophy -- and pride.

When it comes to being immodest, few can challenge Laguna Woods resident Harry Bloom, who celebrated his 91st birthday Thursday.

He is quick to disclose his successful past: "I don't have competition. I have so many trophies that I had to start giving some away. There are very few people who are my age and are in my shape. And I'm talking about nationally."

Throughout his seven-decade career, Bloom said, he's won the U.S. Table Tennis Championship seven times at varying ages and won this competition eight times.

He proved his skills again during the over-90 competition Thursday by defeating Romo Chermoff three times in a row. "Look at that old man," said Chermoff, 91, of Laguna Woods. "He's a heck of a player."

First-time attendee Qiyi Ma, 68, who recently moved to Leisure World from Los Angeles, was impressed by the over-90 group. "They would beat me in a second," he said.Organizers say the event attracts professionals -- including nationally ranked players -- from all over the U.S. and Canada, said tournament director Ray Kunze.

Among them: Lily Yip, 40, a seven-time U.S. champion and a 1992 and 1996 U.S. Olympian.

"Table tennis is a great sport. It keeps you healthy and living a long life," said the Hawaii native.

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