Jay Arenschield and his Ping Pong friends

The Fountain of Youth Has a Net

When my dad took up ping-pong in his 70s, he was looking for a hobby. What he found instead was true friendship—and a way to beat back time.

This ping-pong table has become the site of a showdown. It’s the O.K. Corral of table tennis.

But instead of multiple gunslingers on either side, there are only two old men holding paddles. And one is my father. 

My dad, Jay Arenschield, is crouched like a shortstop, swinging his arms to keep his muscles loose, stopping once to brush his white hair out of his eyes. His opponent, a 74-year-old Californian named David, looks tough, if slightly stoop-shouldered: lean frame. Tanned skin. What appears to be a tailored polo shirt. The man’s eyes are locked on my dad. His mouth is set in a fierce line. 

But Dad, 73, is looking pretty ferocious himself. 

He bounces a ping-pong ball on the floor a couple times. He nods at his opponent. He tosses it into the air with his left hand, and then flicks the paddle in his right, firing the ball off the table and over the net. 

They volley. David scores first. 

From the sidelines, Dad’s youngest brother—my 65-year-old uncle, Ricky—claps his hands. “C’mon, Jay; don’t let up,” Uncle Ricky says. “You get an offensive shot, you take it.” 

“C’mon, Jay. C’mon, c’mon,” adds their friend Kerry. “C’mon, man. You got this.” 

We’re in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the National Senior Games, a once-every-two-years Olympic-style event that invites athletes ages 50 to over 100 to flex their athletic prowess in everything from archery to pickleball. 

Earlier in the week, a 103-year-old woman made National Senior Games history as the oldest woman to compete in—and win—both the 50- and 100-meter dash. Just two days before, Uncle Ricky and Kerry competed in the men’s doubles tournament, placing seventh in the country in their age bracket. Dad had competed in that tournament, too, only he and his partner lost in two quick and heartbreaking matches. 

Now, we’re watching Dad as he tries to get his first win, and soon, other players are gathering to watch—people he’s never met until this tournament, from Virginia and Texas and New York—and they’re applauding my dad and cheering him on. The whole thing feels surreal: Dad is competing on a national level in a sport he only started taking seriously a couple years ago, in his 70s. I sit there on the sidelines, listening as his friends and his wife—my mom—cheer him on. It’s his first match in the first round of a possible seven-round tournament; each match is a best-of-five-game series. If Dad loses two matches in this round, he’s out of the tournament. He is one of 44 men aged 70–74 competing.

David is kicking my dad’s butt, blasting every shot off corners and sending my dad lunging in wild directions. Dad is sweating, breathing hard—at one point, after he misses a serve, he throws his head back in frustration. But he’s also grinning and laughing and making jokes. He’s flashing smiles at my mom, basically flirting. He’s practically bubbling over with happiness. 

And I think: When I am 73, please let me have this kind of life. 

My dad’s ping-pong group is something special, a diverse group of mostly older men at a time when “diversity” and “older men” are not phrases I often connect. 

The group started when one of my dad’s friends, Dhia Aldoori, a physician who fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s reign, realized he needed something to keep his body moving as he got older. Dhia—everyone calls him “Doc”—had played soccer for nearly his entire life. But he didn’t think his body would hold up on the soccer field forever, and, besides, the Ohio seasons didn’t always allow him to play soccer outside. 

After some research, Doc settled on ping-pong. Then, he convinced the clinic that employs him to let him set up a ping-pong table in one of its conference rooms. That was around 2011, and at first, it was just Doc and Mary Mullins, a patient service representative at the clinic. Then, they started inviting patients, who invited friends, who told other friends, and now, around 30 people show up regularly to play. The clinic is in my hometown of Brunswick, Ohio, where my parents still live, and by 2014, that circle had widened to include my dad. 

I’d met many of the players during the handful of visits I’d made to their practices, when my husband and I would bring our 2-year-old son to watch “Baba” play ping-pong. 

But it wasn’t until the Ohio Senior Olympics in the summer of 2018, the tournament that qualified Dad for the national games, that I really understood how tight these friendships had become. My dad was on the court in Columbus, standing with a few of his ping-pong buddies, getting ready for his final match. He took a deep breath and sized up his opponent. He’d dispatched two tough players from Dayton already, and now he had to take on a Michigan resident who looked like a retired weightlifter. If Dad won, he’d take home a gold medal and a qualifying score to compete in the national games. The match was a best-of-five-game series, each game played to 11 points, and he had to win by two. 

I watched Ricky put a hand on my dad’s shoulders, look him in the eyes, and lay down the law. “If you get up 10–5, no holding back,” my uncle said. “You go for the jugular.” 

Nearby, Doc nodded. “Do it.”

Dad looked to his doubles partner, a gentle-hearted retired scientist named Rob, who emigrated from India, and Rob smiled. 

“You can do this, Jay,” he said. 

And then, Dad strode on the court, and won.  

After the Ohio Senior Olympics, Dad and his friends started training in earnest. They traveled to other ping-pong clubs, testing themselves against different players. Doc hired a coach, a kid in his 20s who is trying to make the actual U.S. Table Tennis team. My dad started being more conscientious about what he ate: fewer late-night potato chips, more vegetables. 

I’d visit their practices and watch as they tested new serving styles or worked on returning harder shots, and I got to know the rest of the group: Kerry, my uncle’s doubles partner, an ardent Catholic who jokes and laughs nonstop. Doyle, who plays the banjo and has been wheelchair-bound since a motorcycle accident in his teens—and who has been competing in table tennis tournaments around the world for decades, beating able-bodied competitors at every stop. Tammy, Doyle’s wife, who only recently started playing, but who competed alongside Doyle in the mixed doubles tournament in Albuquerque. 

There are others—Leon, who won a gold medal in the 85–89 mixed doubles tournament in Albuquerque; Mary, who is not yet 50 and too young to compete in the senior games; and Victor, who looks like an aging movie star. 

As their training for the national games ramped up, their practices got more intense. Three or four times a week, they’d get together in that same little conference room at the health center where Doc and Mary work. They’d push the conference tables to the walls, drag out two high-priced ping-pong tables, and start playing. Sometimes, there was music—at one practice, Doc fired up Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” turned to my dad with a sly smile and said, “This one’s for you, Jay.” (I didn’t ask. I didn’t want to know.)

And the thing was, they weren’t just playing ping-pong. They shared meals—lunches and dinners, sometimes with their spouses, sometimes without. When my cousin, Uncle Ricky’s daughter, wanted to build a treehouse for her sons, Doc volunteered to come help. There were times they set down their paddles and talked about social issues. They don’t share the same politics, but they agreed to start with respect and go from there, and so they were able to talk about immigration and health care and climate change. It was almost like they were trying to get better, not just at ping-pong, but as people.

On nights when the group didn’t play, Dad headed into the basement of my parents’ house. Catty-corner from the shop where he dabbles, purely as an amateur, in woodworking, he keeps a ping-pong table with a robot that serves ping-pong balls over the net with varying speeds and spins.

His training was on pace and his game was getting stronger. Every time I asked him about it, he’d say he felt good, that he was just trying to do his best, that he couldn’t wait to see what the national competition was like. He and my mom booked a bed and breakfast in Old Town Albuquerque for a week around the Senior Games, and she started making plans to visit Santa Fe and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, to sample New Mexico’s famous chile rellenos, to explore the desert valleys. 

And then my dad cut off his finger.

“I don’t want you to worry,” my mom started, and if the words had had physical form, they would have quivered, “but we are in the emergency room.”

It was just before lunchtime on April 17, nine weeks before the National Senior Games, when my mom’s number flashed on my phone. It was a workday, the middle of the day, a strange time for her to call. 

Dad had been in the middle of a woodworking project, sawing a chunk of wood into smaller, thinner pieces, when the blade sucked in the shim he’d been using as a guide, dragging Dad’s finger along with it. The blade sliced his index finger neatly at the first knuckle. I wasn’t there, but the pictures I saw later were gruesome: The tip of Dad’s finger lolls to the side at nearly a right angle, exposing muscle, flesh, and bone. 

He was lucky in a few regards. One: The doctors thought that his finger could be reattached, so he might not lose it entirely. Two: He hadn’t lost much blood. And three: The finger happened to be on his left hand. His right hand—his paddle hand—was unharmed. 

Mom didn’t want us to make the two-hour drive to their house. She’d called my uncle Ricky and he’d come to the hospital immediately. Yes, she said, Dad was going to be OK. No, she didn’t know whether he could still play ping-pong. 

Doc canceled ping-pong practice that evening. “No one could imagine playing with your dad in the hospital,” he said. 

My dad went home later that night, and when I talked to him the next day, he sounded as dejected as I’d ever heard him. “It was stupid,” he told me. “I’m giving up woodworking. I don’t need to be taking those kinds of risks.”

He is not, from what I have seen, the kind of person who gives up.

Staying healthy for his grandkids was the most important thing to him. Nothing else—not woodworking, not ping-pong—was worth jeopardizing his ability to play with them. 

But what about the Senior Games? 

“I just don’t know,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel like it matters.”

I remember being a kid, shivering in the early spring wind that sweeps down from Canada and over Lake Erie before swirling around the buildings of downtown Cleveland, and watching for my dad’s face in a sea of marathon runners. Once, he stumbled across the finish line, face white as—well, as a ping-pong ball. He’d had a bad cold that day, and 26.2 miles is a long way, but he had done the training and figured he should give the race a shot. He forced a smile at my mom when she tried to help him stand up. I don’t remember what he said to her, but if I had to guess, I’d say he picked his go-to line from the movie Tombstone, one uttered by a character as he stands, pale, sweating, and drunk, in a saloon. 

“Not me,” my dad would have quoted. “I’m in my prime.”

He is not, from what I have seen, the kind of person who gives up.

Doc was the first person to show up at my parents’ house after the table-saw accident. Dad was under strict “No-Ping-Pong-At-Least-For-Now” orders from his doctor, and, while practice for everyone else had resumed, he was relegated to the easy chair in my parents’ family room. 

Doc wanted to make sure my dad wasn’t lonely. 

A couple days later, Rob, my dad’s doubles partner, called to see if Dad wanted to go to lunch. Uncle Ricky came over and cut the grass, so my mom wouldn’t have to—Dad wasn’t allowed to push the mower because of his finger. 

When Dad went back to practice (of course, he went back to practice), his friends applauded, and then started easing him back into his game. The doctor had told Dad he could play, but that he needed to keep his injured finger safe. That meant no lunging in ways that might cause him to fall, no swinging his arm as he served and accidentally knocking it into a table or wall.

Dad’s friends policed this the same way they played ping-pong: mercilessly. 

The air inside the Albuquerque Convention Center is filled with the rhythmic sounds of ping-pong balls bouncing off tables and shoes squeaking on a linoleum floor. There’s a guy dressed like Uncle Sam—red vest, red-white-and-blue top hat, American flags draping from his armpits—a 74-year-old from North Carolina who will eventually come in second place in Dad’s singles tournament.

I can’t speak for the pickleball games, but the table tennis here in Albuquerque is intense. A team from Slovakia in matching warm-up jackets crushed almost everyone in the 65–69 men’s doubles tournament. An unassuming player from California flummoxed his opponents with the most wicked, tricky, spiraling-paddle serve that anyone in my dad’s group had seen. A player from Virginia moved so gently, so gracefully, so assuredly during his matches that another spectator called him “Fred Astaire.” The guy who ended up winning both a gold in his doubles tournament and the bronze in singles showed up wearing a USA Table Tennis jersey emblazoned with his last name.

On Dad’s court, things are not going well. David wins the first game in a best-of-five match. In game two, my dad scores a couple points, but doesn’t score again, and now David is winning two games to none. When David wins game three, a shutout match, my dad places the ball on the table, shakes David’s hand, and walks over to the sidelines where his friends and my mom are waiting.

“Don’t give up, Jay,” Kerry says. 

Dad takes a swig of water, pulls a towel across his neck, and heads back out to the court to face the next competitor. 

If he loses again, he’s out.

True friendship can be a difficult thing to find, especially later in life. 

Between the summer of 2018, when my dad qualified for the National Senior Games, and the summer of 2019, when he competed in them, I found no fewer than a dozen scientific studies about the power of adult friendships—and what the lack of those friendships can mean for our chances at living long, happy lives. One, funded by AARP, suggested that at least one in three U.S. adults age 45 and older—some 47.8 million people—are consistently lonely. 

I am 38—not quite 45, but not far away, either—and like many people, I’ve struggled at times to figure out where I fit. I’d blame it on parenthood, but the truth is that, sometimes, I’m simply not prioritizing meeting new people and building new friendships. 

Many of my closest friends live scattered around the country, and some of us have kids, and all of us have lives filled with commitments—romantic partners and travel and creative pursuits and managing small businesses and graduate school and taking on new athletic endeavors ourselves. Some of us take care of our parents, too, and almost all of us are managing careers. We are busy, something that I once would have worn as a badge of honor. Now, the word “busy” makes me cringe. 

True friendship can be a difficult thing to find, especially later in life.

Why shouldn’t we be making time for the things and people that make us happiest, the things and people that light up our souls? What would happen if we invested time and energy in those relationships?

There is a whole body of research on this question, from places like Harvard, Northwestern, and Michigan State universities, and they all say some version of the same thing: Having close friendships is a predictor of longevity, can keep you healthier, can even lower your blood pressure. Close friendships, a pair of studies published in 2017 found, can be better for your health than close family relationships.

I know all this. But here I am, in my 30s, sending and receiving “we should really hang out” text messages that never come to fruition.

And here’s my dad, in his 70s, with a whole new group of friends, so close that they’re almost a surrogate family. All because of ping-pong.

Dad’s second match is against a tall, lanky, friendly guy—I later learn he’s a semiretired pastor at a Lutheran church in Minnesota. The first game starts out OK; Dad scores a couple, the pastor scores a couple, and then the pastor pulls ahead, up by two, up by five. Dad scores twice more, then doesn’t score again. Maybe a higher power was pulling for the pastor, maybe Dad was just too nervous, or maybe the pastor was just better at ping-pong, but it’s a deflating start for my dad. He shakes his head, looks up at the ceiling like the answers might be written there, and sighs.

He needs a win, badly.

Kerry leans over to me. “He’s gotta get some confidence going forward, just a little spark,” he says in a low voice.

Game two has already started and, almost immediately, my dad picks up a great point and goes on a roll. He’s up 8–6 when the pastor starts mounting a comeback. The pastor picks up a point, then Dad scores again, and again, and now he has 10 points. Game to 11. The pastor scores, but Dad takes it home. Game two: Dad. The match is tied.

“The pendulum just swung,” Uncle Ricky tells my dad. “Now you got the momentum.”

Dad wins game three and goes up two games to one. One more will give him his first win in a national tournament match.

He serves, and the pastor sends the ball to one edge—Dad just barely returns that shot—and then the pastor fires a return to the opposite edge, and Dad can’t get there in time.

Dad is down by one, then down by two, then scores. He scores again, and again, and soon it’s 7–4, Dad, and now Kerry and my uncle are on their feet.

“Oh, yeah, now he’s getting sneaky with the serves; now he’s getting confidence,” Kerry says. 

But then the pastor starts scoring. 

7–5. 7–6. 7–7. 

Tie game.

Here’s my dad, in his 70s, with a whole new group of friends, so close they’re almost a surrogate family.

“Jay, I want you to get an attitude, man,” Kerry shouts, and maybe that clicks, because Dad starts scoring again. Before long, it’s 10–8, and then Dad is sending the ball over the net and the pastor can’t get there in time.

11–8. Game and match.

We have choices about how we age that start as soon as we are old enough to create our own destinies. We can smoke, or not. We can wear sunscreen, or not. We can drink too much, or not. We can eat more produce and fewer potato chips, move our bodies a little bit every day, learn new things, get enough sleep, keep our connections to friends and families strong—or not. None of these things guarantee a long, happy life. But they sure don’t hurt.

From my dad and his ping-pong friends, I’ve learned: We can approach life like it’s something to be survived and endured, something to be fought, something to be beaten. We can give up when something tough happens, sink back into our easy chairs and never get up again. Or we can wrap life in our best embrace and allow ourselves new experiences with new people in new places. We can challenge ourselves. We can be kind and loving and supportive to the people around us. We can bask in the love that shines our way as a result. 

And we can get on a court, even with a partially sawed-off finger, even though we’ve never done it before, even in our 60s and 70s and 80s, and we can compete. 

Dad’s third match has started, and while the stakes are high—the winner moves on to the next round—we are all still soaring from Dad’s first-ever national win. Another win, at this point, would be gravy. 

The guy who plays ping-pong like Fred Astaire dances sits next to me to watch. His name, he tells me, is Weishuang Qu, and he lives in Virginia. Dad is playing Weishuang’s doubles partner, and so far, Dad is winning.

Dad goes up 6–3, and Weishuang tells me that he has been to this national tournament many years in a row now, and every time, he leaves feeling inspired.

“Here, I feel we are among friends,” he says. “And we are very lucky to have friends that play together. It’s like a festival.”

We can wrap life in our best embrace and allow ourselves new experiences with new people in new places.

Just then, Dad crushes a shot over the net, and Weishuang’s partner can’t answer it. Game one, Dad. He needs two more wins to move on.

He won’t get them. Weishuang’s partner has figured out my dad’s game and wins the second game, then the third, then the fourth.

Weishuang is applauding, but before he goes to congratulate his friend, he looks at me. “Your father is athletic, and he can improve. He could play well into his 80s.”

Then, Dad is off the court and shaking hands with Kerry and my uncle and hugging me and my mom. “I’ll get him next time,” he says. “I would like to get to that next round.”

Weishuang comes over to shake my dad’s hand and offer a little ping-pong advice, and when they’re done talking, Dad has a wide smile on his face.

The next National Senior Games will be in 2021, in Florida, and Dad has a game plan.

“I know what I need to work on,” he says. “Two years till Fort Lauderdale.”

Laura Arenschield is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Email her at larenschield@gmail.com.

Photography by Mary Beth Koeth

Originally Published September 2019