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Seasoned players burning up the pingpong tables at the Janesville Senior Center

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
September 14, 2011
— It’s not your grandmother’s pingpong.

Even though your grandmother could be playing.


The seasoned players at the Janesville Senior Center—with an average age in the 70s—nimbly maneuver, lunge, smash and scoop the ball.


The league meets on the second floor from 10:30 a.m. to noon on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Players change partners every three games.


The seniors relish not only the game but each other. They are generous with their praise, support and cookies, and they end every game with hugs.


About a dozen of the 20 or so regular players were pinging and ponging Tuesday. A handful wore red shirts from the recent Wisconsin Senior Olympics in Milwaukee. Several returned with gold medals.


Table tennis is great exercise, they said, and many break a sweat.


Harold Bertelsen, 79, of Beloit has been playing at the Janesville Senior Center for about seven years after putting down his paddle for 55 years.


“It takes a little while to come back,” Bertelsen said.


He and his wife, Bev, first came to the center for ballroom dancing on Fridays. Now, they drive to Janesville four days a week.


Bertelsen honed his pingpong skills while serving in Korea. He was so good that he was forced to learn to play with his left hand so others would challenge him.


Dick Graupner from Rockford, Ill., is the oldest of the group at 81. He puts the most English on a serve, Bertelsen said, “and he does it legally.”


Tournament rules require that players serve by throwing the ball into the air and hitting it on the way down.


Graupner said he comes for the activity, which helps him stay flexible, and for the hugs.


But he acknowledged that his age is starting to slow his game.


“It’s getting to be a little bit too much for me,” he said. “There are too many young people around.”


Bertelsen has big praise for Velma Burke, who scooped up three gold medals in Milwaukee.


“She’s fast,” he said.


Burke, 68, of Janesville relearned her serve so she could compete in tournaments. Her serve is fast now, but before it was so fast the ball was past opponents before they could get their paddles up, Bertelsen said.


Burke played tennis and roller-skated when she was younger. But she was forced to quit after three knee surgeries.


Pingpong is a great outlet.


“I came, and I got hooked,” Burke said. “I guess I’ve always been a little competitive. I like the exercise. When I had to give up tennis, this feeds that,” she said.


People don’t think you get much of a workout, but you do, Burke said.


“If you play well, you’re running, you’re picking up the ball, you’re leaning. I get a little carried away at times.”


Burke was the oldest player in her categories at the Olympics. She played in three events and won gold in all three.


The group is thrilled to welcome newcomers of any skill level. Senior center members must be at least 50 years old.


For beginners, the players set up a fourth table.


“We never slam one, and there is no English until they get the hang of it. We want people to show up,” Bertelsen said.


He was the first to greet a visitor Tuesday and haul out an extra table. Apparently, not many leave without playing a game or two.


And how did that go?


Let’s just say that Bertelsen was at least forced to use his good hand.



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