By Debra Smith, Special to the Herald
First of all, for those serious about the game, it’s table tennis, not pingpong.
Second, it only takes about a minute of watching someone like Mariano Ortiz play to realize table tennis can be a heart-pounding sport that takes some serious skill.
Ortiz, a 56-year-old international banker living in Arlington, took up table tennis in earnest two years ago. He’s already smacking his way up the rankings. He has qualified for the senior national games this summer, where he aspires to place in the top 10 in both singles and doubles.
“I’ve played off and on my whole life,” he said. “I’ve always had the knack, but I wasn’t serious like I am now.”
By serious, he means practicing 20 hours a week or more, lessons and competitive tournaments. He watches table tennis videos, reads table tennis books and talks table tennis with his table tennis friends.
He even bought a $1,000 table tennis robot from Paddle Palace in Portland.
The robot zinged balls at a high rate of speed across his living room. After a session of dozens of the orbs buzzing across the room like a squadron of tiny F-18s, Ortiz found balls under sofa cushions, nesting in the bookcases and lodged under furniture. The rapid-fire action drove his cats bonkers.
His wife eventually made him move the robot to the garage.
Ortiz has played racket sports, particularly tennis, for most of his life. It was a story in The Herald about the burgeoning table tennis program at the Carl Gipson Senior Center of Everett that inspired him to step up his table tennis game.
He now plays there frequently, and he’s made friends with top-notch players, including Howard Grossman of Lake Stevens.
Grossman, a volunteer at the senior center, is ranked No. 3 in the U.S. for table tennis players 75 years and older. He works with anyone who walks through the doors.
“He was a real beginner who showed quite an interest in getting better,” Grossman said, describing the first time he saw Ortiz play.
Many older adults who try to improve their games come to table tennis with bad habits already in place, Grossman said. All those years of muscle memory are a hard thing to undo. Newbies also tend to overestimate their skill at the game.
Ortiz had a few bad habits when he started, but he has worked hard to change. That determination is what has made him successful, Grossman said. That and a backhand so good even Grossman might be a little envious.
“He copies mine,” Grossman quipped.
Ortiz has a fair chance of earning a medal in the senior games this summer, Grossman said. The challenge for Ortiz is that he doesn’t have experience playing at a high level.
“He’ll encounter players much higher ranked,” Grossman said.
Ortiz is raising money to attend the event. He continues to play tournaments closer to home. He competes in head-to-toe Adidas athletic clothing and uses a blade (not a paddle) with special rubber that costs $79 — that’s just for one side of the blade. He plays so hard he sometimes knocks over the dividers between tables diving for a ball.
“I think I have a chance to represent,” he said.
The senior center has become the place to play table tennis. More than 30 people regularly show up to play at the center’s five tables and more than 70 are regulars.
The center offers sessions from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, 12:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Saturdays. You have to be 50 and older to play and a member of the senior center, which is free to join.
Grossman asks players to contribute $1 a session to help pay for the equipment and tables. Otherwise, there is no charge. Players should wear athletic shoes.
All abilities are welcome.Players should be relatively mobile, he said. The sport is excellent form of exercise for older adults, but he also added a caveat.
“A lot of people don’t think of it as a sport,” Grossman said. “They think it’s pingpong, just standing there and hitting the ball … We are way beyond that.”
Call the Carl Gipson Senior Center of Everett for more information: 425-257-8780.