Carol Klenfner knows a thing or two about the importance of reaction time. As a longtime public relations specialist for music legends like Sir Elton John, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who and Aerosmith, she was responsible for acting quickly and preserving their image, a component just as important to any rock-and-roll star as a pre-show soundcheck.
Now 73 years old, Klenfner is putting her agile reflexes to the test again, this time as a table tennis competitor on a national level. This native New Yorker may have grown up with a table in her basement and a paddle in her hand on occasion, but she had no idea that life would throw her some curve balls and, to revamp her own spirit, she’d pick up the sport again at 69 years old.
“While I wish I had taken up table tennis at a younger age, when my body wasn’t affected by sciatica and other issues, I’m so grateful I’ve found something that I can be passionate about late in life,” she said. “Given my age, I’m probably in the best shape I’ve ever been in, in my life. The truth is, it’s never too late to change, to learn and to grow.”
Rather than kicking her feet up and reminiscing about time backstage or on the road with mega-star names, Klenfner is on her toes, living her own story and extremely happy to be the one on stage.
‘A Swing Like Ted Williams’
Klenfner’s road to being a four-time national-level athlete and a three-time gold medal winner at the Empire State Senior Games began in Queens. Growing up with an older brother who was her “unofficial coach” in all things sports gave Klenfner a bit of an edge athletically compared to other girls her age. And, she sure relished her time playing baseball and stick-ball with the boys.
“My brother always said I had a swing like Ted Williams; a very natural swing,” she said.
With solid eye-hand coordination, Klenfner picked up ping-pong quickly when an uncle gifted the family a table for their basement.
“We played, but we didn’t play the way people play now,” Klenfner said.” It was more casual ping-pong rather than highly competitive table tennis.”
She continued to be active throughout her childhood, but a car accident while she was in college resulted in a dislocated hip and month-long hospital stay. Doctors advised her to pull back from “impact sports which could lead to arthritis later on life,” so she dropped out of gym class and hit the pause button on her time as an athlete.
She embarked on a fulfilling public relations career, got married and gave birth to two daughters. Life was busy and sports were put on the back burner, but she always made time to work out.
“I gained so much weight in my first pregnancy that I made a vow that I would never be fat again,” she said. “I was always very consistent about working out because I felt I had to be strong, but I never participated in sports, and my husband was never interested in participating anyway.”
But, when a major loss coupled with big life changes, Klenfner got back to her roots.
“Shortly after my husband passed away, I moved to a different apartment and I got laid off from work in the Great Recession. There was a lot of change going on and I was trying to figure out who I was when I was by myself, and what I liked to do,” she said.
A Sport For Her Future
Realizing that nothing made her feel better than when she was moving around, Klenfner and her best friend, who also grew up in Queens with a ping-pong table in her basement, decided to go check out Spin, a table tennis club in Manhattan founded by actress Susan Sarandon.
“We had a great time, went back and played some more, and then it started to get a little boring because when you play with the same person, you play the same game,” Klenfner said. “So, we asked at the front desk if there were any other opportunities to play and they told us about a women’s league that met on Sundays.”
The following Sunday, they showed up and did well enough in the tryout that the league welcomed them with open arms.
“We had to learn things that we didn’t know as ‘basement players,’ like when you’re serving, you can’t just hit the ball out of your hand. You have to toss it,” she said. “It was a great economical way to play a lot with a lot of different people, young and old.”
Around the same time, Klenfner stumbled upon a documentary on PBS called Ping Pong.
“It focused on four players from 80 to100 years old who were playing in the World Veterans Championship, an international tournament for people 50 and older,” she explained. “It was very dramatic and they were very passionate about the sport. They wanted to win, and at the time time, they were fighting to take a bite out of life. As I watched, I realized this is a sport for the future. This is something I can do as I get older.”
So, Klenfner hired Matt Khan, a table tennis pro from Guyana, who started working with her once a week.
“When I first started with him, we focused on getting me not to use my arm. That’s the way you hurt your shoulder, so you need to use your body and stay in a squat position,” she said. “I also didn’t have a backhand. I had a natural forehand, probably from my baseball days, but my backhand has improved since.”
Training with Khan, combined with some natural athleticism, helped Klenfner move up the ranks on the local table tennis scene. So, she upped her sessions with Khan to twice a week and saw giant improvements in her game.
She also works out with a personal trainer and takes private Pilates lessons once a week in addition to playing table tennis four times a week. That, on top of a freelance public relations business, certainly keeps her hopping.
“I’ve asked myself why I spend the money and time on my body. About ten years ago I had severe back problems, including a prognosis of possible permanent nerve damage, which lead to back surgery. When I came through that, I was at a crossroads. My primary goal was to be able to stay active, so I made a conscious decision to invest in my body on the “front end” through proactive fitness, Pilates and strength training as opposed to on the “back end” through the health care system,” she explained. “I think it’s proved to be a smart approach to aging – and table tennis would have been physically impossible without that commitment to my health.”
And the benefits of playing competitive table tennis at 73?
“My reflexes are amazingly fast now, my balance is better and I feel like it’s enabled me to think faster, even away from the table” she said.
Finding Fun Again
Klenfner recently took second place in the 70+ age group at the U.S. National Table Tennis Championships in Las Vegas, which will help her reach another goal she has in the sport.
“I want to raise my rating past 1,000. The best players in the world are at about 3,000,” she said. “But really, I’m just looking to up my personal best.”
Numbers aside, table tennis has reconnected her with her youth and playful side.
“I’m having fun in the same way that I had as a 9-year-old, when I’d come home from school and we’d go out in the street, and hit the ball and play catch,” Klenfner said. “I feel so fortunate that I’ve had the chance to take a run around the bases again. I’m treasuring this time where I can do what I want and be happy. What a miracle.”
And, what an encore performance.