An inspiring tale of late sporting success

It’s the last match of the season. My final opponent is an older female player – slim, tall, silver haired, with a determined spring in her step.

I am expected to win, but I feel a little uneasy. I’m not quite sure how to approach the match. Part of me feels like I should be taking it a bit easy. I don’t want to be seen trying too hard against an older female opponent. But another part of me knows if I don’t try my best I may end up losing.

The match begins. My opponent defends well with her long pimples. In fact she defends very well. My big topspin shots keep coming back! If I misjudge the spin from her pimples, the ball pops up high and she drives the ball hard with her forehand for a winner.

The score is close. This causes me to tense up with my attacks and I make a couple of mistakes. At 8-8, I compose myself and two good serves and follow up attacks brings up game point. Then an untypical service error from my opponent and I win the first set 11-8. Phew!

My opponent is Margaret Chambers, aged 64, from St George’s Table Tennis club in Cambridge. On the table she is very focused, showing little emotion, but clearly determined to win. Off the table Margaret is very warm and talkative. After the match, I get to know more about Margaret’s background – an inspiring tale of late sporting success and an even later sporting re-birth following an horrific car accident.

Margaret started playing table tennis when she was 13. If the courts weren’t playable at her local tennis club, Margaret and her twin sister Anne, would go the clubhouse and play table tennis instead. Her interest in table tennis grew and with Anne played in local leagues in Bedford and Southport.

Then college beckoned and table tennis stopped (for nearly 40 years). But Margaret continued to play a number of different sports. She was captain of the GB colleges netball team, played tennis at county level and badminton at recreational level.

However, Margaret’s main sporting success was still to come. At the age of 30, she started to play squash and was soon playing at county level. In 2003, at the age of 53, she was selected to represent England in the over 50’s category in home internationals played in Antrim, Northern Ireland. Margaret remained undefeated throughout the tournament and England were crowned champions.

On the experience of representing her country Margaret says “I was so thrilled to get the call up letter. My brother and sister-in-law who live in Dublin came and supported. It was extra special for me as my teammates had played before at this level and most of them in other age categories as well. It was a once in a life-time experience.”

In the second set of our match, I begin to relax a little more and build up a healthy lead. But then Margaret upps her level. Her chops come back low over the net, loaded with backspin. A forehand topspin goes into the net. In the next point I misread the spin and my forehand topspin goes off the end of the table. And then another error resulting from Margaret’s uncompromising defensive strokes.

All of a sudden the score is 8-8 again. With enthusiastic support from her sister Anne, I’m feeling the pressure once more. I change tactics and play a bit more cautiously, hoping Margaret will make an error. I misread the spin (again). The ball pops up, but this time Margaret misses an easy attack. Lucky! Another tense rally goes my way. And with a side spin serve to Margaret’s elbow and big forehand attack I win the set 11-8. This is hard work!

In November 2003 – the same year as her call up to the England squash team – Margaret was involved in a serious car crash. She suffered multiple injuries including imploded fractures to her forehead, fractures to her ulna and radius in her right arm, a fractured kneecap, multiple fractures to bones in her right hand, damage to her rotator cuff and multiple abrasions around her eyes, neck and legs.

Margaret was not able to work for six months. It was over a year before she returned to playing squash competitively. When she started playing squash again she had to use a two handed grip, because she couldn’t manage with one hand.

Margaret was never able to recapture the form which led to her representing England. The injuries sustained in the car crash had taken their toll. And the unforgiving physicality of squash seemed incompatible with an ageing and creaking body. It became very apparent to Margaret that she could not do what she had done previously.

But Margaret is a very determined competitor. Not playing sport wasn’t an option. So she returned to the sport she first played as a 13-year-old – table tennis. Along with her sister Anne, she started playing at St George’s table tennis club in Cambridge. Encouraged by club coach Kevin Grey, Margaret was soon practicing regularly, sometimes as much as 4 times a week. Before long she was playing in two local leagues, and her win percentage was getting higher and higher.

I was due to play Margaret earlier in the season, but she was unable to play. The reason? She was having a hip replacement. I never expected to play her in the second half of the season. But six weeks after the operation she was practising again. 8 weeks after the operation she was playing league matches again.

The hip operation has aided her movement, “I usually feel more secure and have little pain- discomfort. But you cannot 100% replace a hip with a new one! But at 64, who has a 100% body? You do what you can with what you have. You do your best.”

It’s the third set and I’m in trouble. Margaret is winning 7-4 and her defence is more consistent than my attack.

In one ridiculous rally, I hit four topspin shots, moving Margaret around the table, but the ball keeps coming back. My fifth topspin lands deep to Margaret’s backhand. Slightly out of position, Margaret switches her bat from her right hand to her left hand and blocks the ball back over the net. The ball clips the edge of the table and Margaret wins the point. The few spectators applaud. And I can’t help but smile. I glance at my teammate Yordan, who is umpiring, and he gives me a raised eyebrow. He doesn’t look impressed.

To get back into the set I know I have to play my very best. I add more power to my attacks and start to find a way through Margaret’s defence. The score is 14-13 and I have match-point. Another sidespin serve to Margaret’s elbow and a big forehand attack down the line and I’ve won.

I am very, very relieved!

Margaret plays mainly a defensive game which requires a lot of side to side and back and forth movement. To do this at the age of 64, having recovered from such a serious car crash and only just returned from a hip operation, is very impressive indeed.

Certainly her participation in other sports helps her compete. She believes table tennis shares many of the same fundamentals with other racquet sports, such as “preparation, watching the ball, shot selection, movement, decision making, psychological and physical stamina.”

And by her own admission she has many strengths, honed over many years of competitive play, which she brings to the table. “I’m usually strong mentally and don’t make too many unforced errors. My analysis of opponents and endurance is relatively good. My concentration and focus is quite strong and I’m competitive.”

Margaret’s focus and competitiveness is very apparent when she plays. And it’s slightly unnerving! Fortunately our team got promoted, so next season I won’t be facing Margaret again. But she did promise to come to our club to practice during the summer, so I will enjoy playing against her pimples in a less pressured situation.

As for Margaret, she wants to improve her “skills at serving; initiating attack play; developing more spin, e.g. loop … too much to do but realise I can only do so much at one time.” If Margaret can make these improvements to her attacking play, she will be deadly. Her opponents next season will be in for a torrid time.

I think Margaret has such an inspiring story to tell. On the one hand, her story shows it’s never too late to take up a sport and you can still reach a very high level – even representing your country.

On the other hand, her story shows that whatever life throws at you – injuries, accidents, general wear and tear – there are new activities you can do, new sports you can play, new ways to enjoy life.

Margaret is keen to stress she doesn’t think her situation is remarkable. “There are lots of players out there with replacement joints. And lots of older players dealing with all sorts, not to mention younger ones too.”

But I think she is selling herself short. If I can still move and play like Margaret when I’m 64 and if I still have Margaret’s appetite to learn, improve and compete, I’ll be very happy indeed.

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