Racket Science

The Temple Table Tennis Club, a group of about 20 senior residents from throughout the area, meet at Sammons Community Center twice a week to polish their ping-pong skills and chit-chat with friends. In the above photo, a player concentrates on her serve to start a game. David Stone photo

Ping Pong is a smash hit with members of the Temple Table Tennis Club

Paul Friedman returns a serve during a game of ping pong Thursday at Sammons Community Center. The center has three tables, and program director Marissa Ybarra says the growing club will soon need a fourth table. David Stone photo


John Schuckmann was all smiles after rocketing a serve past Paul Friedman in a ping-pong matchup Thursday between two retired physicians. Friedman grimaced, then vowed revenge, and he got it moments later by sneaking a shot past his opponent.

The two former Scott & White doctors are among a group of about 20 “athletes” from throughout Central Texas who take turns at the tables every Tuesday and Thursday at Sammons Community Center. Thursday’s session had players from Temple, Belton, Copperas Cove and Waco going at it in doubles matches.

Some of the players are highly competitive, but for others — Mary Billeck of Belton, for instance — it’s more about the people.

“I’ve been playing ping pong for more than 10 years,” she said. “I don’t think I’m very good, but they say I’ve improved. When I was younger, I was into racquetball. I’m just not able to play that sport any more, but I can play ping pong. It’s a lot of fun being around this group.”

Marissa Ybarra, program director at Sammons, said the group comes in at 9:30 a.m. and plays until 11:30.

“It’s not a class,” she said. “There is no programming. The players pretty much run the program.”

According to Schuckmann, the club has been active for about 15 years.

“We started at Wilson Park Recreation Center, then went to the old high school gym,” he said. “We ended up here at Sammons, and we really like the set-up.”

“About 15 or 16 players usually show up, so we mostly play doubles — that way everyone gets time on the tables,” he said. “We hope to have a tournament at some point.”

While some players are fairly new to the sport, others have been playing since childhood.

“When I was a kid, my dad built a table and put it in our basement,” Schuckmann said. “That was in Ohio. Dad didn’t play, but Mom did and she taught my brother and I the rules and the basics of the game.”

“I have a 14-year-old grandson who was always wrapped up in video games,” he added. “I asked him if he would be interested in learning to play table tennis. He said he would, so I gave him a table I built years ago. Now, he’s like,’We need to play again, grandpa, I’m getting really good.’”

Martin Pinkney of Copperas Cove also has been playing all of his life.

“I started as a kid, and we didn’t have a lot of money so I built my own table,” he said. “I bought a sheet of plywood, and used Mom’s kitchen chairs to hold it up. I went down to K-Mart and bought a net, paddles and a ball, then I taught myself how to play.”

During his 21-year career in the Army, Pinkney upped his game and began competing. He still does.

“Now I play in the VA’s Adaptive Sports Program and I’m on their team,” he said. “We travel all over for the Golden Age Games, which is kind of like an old-folks Olympics for veterans. There’s a variety of sports, but I play ping pong and billiards. We’ve travelled to Alaska, Detroit, Buffalo … several places.”

Schuckmann, being a retired physician, said there are many benefits to playing ping pong other than just having a good time.

“The game improves hand-eye coordination and stimulates mental alertness,” he said. “It improves reflexes, it’s easy on the joints, it burns calories and it offers a social outlet. It’s great getting together with friends twice a week to play and talk.”

“A 150-pound person can burn 272 calories by playing table tennis for an hour,” he said. “Considering the fact that the sport is entertaining and addictive, it can be a fun and easy way to burn calories.”

Those attending Thursday’s session were all smiles as they visited while waiting for an open table, and they frequently shouted words of encouragement to those playing. Naturally, there was some good-natured ribbing and friendly trash-talking going on as well.

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