Don’t Tell That To Mel
(by Bill Draper)
It’s a young man’s sport.
That is a common phrase said about many sports, and if we can set aside the obvious gender problem with that statement, we can likely agree that modern table tennis, at the professional level, has clearly become dominated by young players – male and female alike. Just look at the recent Japan Open results with the combined ages of the two finalists in Men’s and Women’s Singles championship barely exceeding 30! To add perspective, Ma Long is 29 and Timo Boll is 37.
Yes, it’s a young person’s sport. But don’t tell that to Mel Ketchel.
Mel, a member of the Maryland Table Tennis Center (MDTTC), born June 1st, 1922, just celebrated his 96th birthday. He is still a regular at the club where he can frequently be seen playing against others more than 85 years his junior. Mel saw the Great Depression and served in World War II. We can forgive him that he isn’t quite sure when he first picked up a paddle, but he thinks it was probably at a YMCA when he was a young teenager in the mid-30’s. That’s the 1930’s for those readers who are too young to really remember the 1900’s.
Mel adds confirmation to my bias that table tennis attracts an intellectual crowd. He received his PhD in Physiology, was a professor at Tufts, served as a researcher for an Army cancer project and finished his career at NIH at a sprightly 72 years old, not far from the club where he now regularly plays.
I have seen Mel at the club many times, usually chatting briefly with him between league matches. He is always a pleasant person to speak with and is mentally as sharp as most who are half his age. But as I spoke in depth with him for this article he especially lit up when talking about his political activism, being a supporter of civil rights and women’s rights. Clearly another of his passions and many interests in his rich life.
At home Mel was always that family member that others lined up to play in a friendly but often fierce game of ping pong in the basement, hoping to win bragging rights to be the one who would finally beat him.
His best shot, according to him, is his forehand. I watched tonight as he practiced with another competitive league player and he still has a pretty impressive forehand!
One of the wonderful aspects of table tennis, something that can be seen on any given night at MDTTC as well as at many other clubs around the world, is that it can be enjoyed by those who are 6, and by those who are 96.
At a certain level table tennis is dominated by the young, but I suspect that it is also one of the secrets to Mel’s youth.