Charlene Liu
Charlene Liu Credit: Kelyn Soong

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For 50-plus hours a week, Thomas Carothers oversees the research programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank headquartered in D.C.

As the senior vice president for studies, Carothers writes about democracy-related issues like human rights and the political polarization of governments worldwide. 

It can be stressful, draining work. But on Saturday mornings, Carothers is simply “Tom.” In those hours, he’s transported to another place, where the only thing that matters is whacking a small, plastic ball past the person across the table.

Carothers, 63, spends his non-work time as one of the regulars at the Washington DC Table Tennis Center (WDCTT)—the city’s only club dedicated to the sport colloquially (and lovingly) known as ping pong.

“It definitely takes you to another world,” he says. “[It’s] relaxing to get out of the mental space of work, which in my case is international politics. Like any good sport, it’s just a completely different thing to concentrate on. You have to clear out your mind. You have to be focused on the moment.”

Last Saturday, Carothers was one of 15 players who showed up for the weekly league play at WDCTT. Most, like him, were over the age of 60. The club, located inside a small brick building less than two miles away from the Takoma Metro station, caters to older competitors and gives senior table tennis players a place to compete and socialize.

When Charlene Liu opened the 5,000-square foot space dedicated to table tennis in the summer of 2014, she did so to spread her love of the sport. Liu and her husband, Changping Duan, previously ran leagues at the Maryland Table Tennis Center in Gaithersburg, and the China natives started the new center in D.C. after they retired.

“I just cannot think about capital city of the United States does not have table tennis club,” says Liu, the world’s No. 1 female player 65 or older, according to International Table Tennis Federation rankings. “That’s not acceptable.”

It costs $290 per year to join the club for seniors (65 and over) and students (18 and younger), and the center hosts league play with round robin matches on Wednesday and Friday nights, Saturday mornings, and Sunday afternoons. Roughly half of the center’s clientele are 60 and above.

“This is by seniors, for seniors,” Liu, 67, says with a laugh. “But I’m not saying young people are not welcome.”

Next month, Liu will join Duan in Seattle from Germantown to be closer to their son and infant granddaughter. They sold the business in February to 33-year-old Khaleel Asgarali, a local table tennis coach who already teaches there and is also a professional player in Germany, but remain the owners of the property.

Asgarali—who says that 90 percent of his clients at WDCTT are seniors—wants to maintain that part of the club, while building up its junior and summer camp programs. He counts seniors that have medaled at senior national tournaments among his students, and some shell out a dollar a minute to get private lessons from Asgarali (and Liu, until she moves).

“It’s just one of those sports that you can play at any age,” he says. “You can have a 12 year old at the same level as a 70 year old.”

But the sport can prove particularly helpful to seniors. Many of the players 60 and above on the recent Saturday morning played the sport recreationally as a child and came back to it later in life. WDCTT gives them a chance to sharpen their skills and build fitness in a low-impact sport. Studies have shown that table tennis can improve motor skills, and older players at WDCTT have turned to the sport to stay active.

“The ball comes very fast, so it keeps you alert,” Liu says. “Seniors, they get slower and slower, but if you do this, you will see those seniors, they move better than other people.”

Peter Smith, a Takoma Park resident originally from England, was surprised to find people older than him when he joined the club about six years ago. Now 74, he’s still not the oldest player during league play. He says he sees players in their 80s “routinely” beating people in their 20s.

“It’s difficult to envision another sport where that can happen. Maybe Tiddlywinks, but that’s about it,” Smith says, referring to a popular British board game that involves shooting small colored discs into a cup.

Like Smith, Pelle Deinoff didn’t take table tennis too seriously until his late 60s. The 77-year-old had a table in his garage in the suburbs of Stockholm but preferred tennis until an injury forced him to stop. He took his first table tennis lesson at 68.

Deinoff was the oldest player at the club on the recent Saturday, but he won games against players more than a decade younger than him, including against 26-year-old Jason Miranda, who stood out as a millennial in a room mostly filled with boomers.

“I don’t have the stamina like, for instance, a young man like Jason, so I had to pull the trigger quicker,” Deinoff explains. “I have to attack quicker, long rallies would kill me. And that’s what I do.”

Miranda, who moved from India to Prince George’s County about three years ago, enjoys playing with the 60-plus crowd. They all have different games, he says, and it inspires him to get better.

“It’s especially fun when someone like 55, 60, like really beats you or like kicks your ass,” Miranda says. “Maybe they’re not as fast on their feet, but they have a cracking game … and can make me run around.”

“I’m going to be surprised if I’m half as good as these guys when I’m their age,” he adds. “I don’t even know if I expect to play when I’m in my 60s.”

Daryl Hill plans to play for as long as he possibly can. The 62-year-old from Baltimore travels down to D.C. to compete in WDCTT leagues about once or twice every couple months and in the local tournaments throughout the year.

In 2017, he went to Birmingham, Alabama, to compete in table tennis at the National Senior Games, a two-week long, multi-sport competition for athletes aged 50 and over also known as the “Senior Olympics.” Two years later, Hill went to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the same event, and is currently in the process of trying to qualify for the 2021 Games in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. 

“Will any of us be world class players? Absolutely not,” Hill says. “But it’s just to stay healthy and enjoy the game.”

At 57, Ted Vdelson is one of the younger players on Saturdays. He played table tennis in middle school, high school, and seriously in college at the University of Maryland. He hadn’t played competitively since, but got back into it last summer.

Two years ago, doctors diagnosed Vdelson with multiple sclerosis. In addition to physical therapy and visits to his orthopedist, he takes table tennis lessons with Liu and competes regularly on the weekends at WDCTT. Vdelson says he’s felt stronger since picking up the sport again.

“I’m more fit,” he says. “The first lesson I took with her, I had to stop after 45 minutes … Now, after an hour, I can still keep going.”

None of the Saturday league players envision that they’ll stop playing anytime soon. For them, table tennis is a sport of a lifetime.

“Until the day they carry me out in a casket,” Carothers says.