The D.C. Table Tennis Center has enforced COVID-19 safety measures: Here’s how these senior members are coping.

Robert Lehrman practices table tennis with his ping pong ball robot in his garage.

By Sarah Ricker

“Let me show you my robot!” Robert Lehrman, 77, said as he walked into his garage with enthusiasm.

The robot stood at four feet tall and fired ping pong balls across a table, mocking the actions of a table tennis opponent. Over a video call, Lehrman began hitting the small orange and white balls one after another into a net across the table, demonstrating his skill. He practices here in his garage with his mechanical partner every day since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.

Lehrman has frequented the D.C. Table Tennis Center, playing on the seniors’ competitive league, for seven years. However, being within the at-risk population, he has not returned since the outbreak for fear of infection. He said he feels lucky to be able to play at home, and to spend more time with his wife, but the comradery with his ping pong friends is lacking.

“It’s more than just playing, we have loads of things to talk about,” he said in a video call interview, explaining how much he misses his teammates. “I will be happier when all of this is over.”

The D.C. Table Tennis Center has been operational since mid-April with very limited capacity, but this week the center will open its doors to limited league tournaments once again, including the senior teams Lehrman once played on. For the players’ safety, they have installed automatic doors, an online table reservation system, as well as remote controlling of door locks, lights, air conditioners, and ping pong robots.

Before COVID-19 the center was bustling with energy, hosting an average of 60 people a night. Now, the city declared a maximum capacity of 20. Though, the owner and head coach, Khaleel Asgarali, is precautionary and only allows 12 to 15 players to practice at once.

Asgarali said in a video call interview that about 90% of the players in his center are over the age of 55, so he feels an immense responsibility to keep them safe. “It’s terrifying,” he said, “There’s a lot of vulnerable people around me.” Asgarali takes his players’ mental health seriously as well their physical health noting that ping pong is a stress reliever, a social activity, and a form of exercise.

Eugene O’Bryan, 69, founded the seniors’ league at the Center and has dedicated his retirement to bettering himself in ping pong. He used table tennis as a way to keep in shape and make friends. “I need those things,” he said in a video call interview. But O’Bryan hasn’t touched a paddle in six months.

O’Bryan has had medical setbacks in the past, requiring him to take an 18 month break from practicing which hindered his progress in the sport. “I had all these plans to get to a certain level of skill and play at certain tournaments. But I was waylaid for quite some time for recovery,” he said. Just after starting lessons again, the pandemic forced him and everyone else inside. “I guess I’m used to disappointment,” O’Bryan said.

Iona Senior Services, a small non-profit in Northwest D.C., has had similar philosophies and challenges relating community growth and development. Courtney Tolbert, the Program Manager for Iona, directs weekly classes and conversations surrounding cultural education and “active wellness” for seniors.

In a phone interview, she recalls a class from several years ago where women with cognitive decline learned about women in jazz. A year later, a participant with Alzheimer’s was attending a museum trip with Iona and her memory was triggered by an exhibit, causing her to remember their class from the year before. The woman was ecstatic. “That’s the drug for me, that’s why I do this, to create that moment,” Tolbert said.

Now, with COVID-19 threatening all her program development, Tolbert said, “I feel like I’ve left so many participants behind.” Every member has different neurological deficiencies and living conditions at home. Some have access to technology, some don’t. Some have visual impairments; others have physical impairments. The D.C. Office of Aging and Community Development offers basic resources and food delivery, but social interactions will continue to be unsafe.

It’s nearly impossible to cultivate an environment comparable to what they offered before, she said. Emotional memory is the strongest one but with everyone at home, these emotional memories aren’t active. For some seniors, their health is at risk if they leave their house, and when they are forced to stay in.

For example, Ted Udelson, 58, a competitive table tennis player at the center, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Type 1 Diabetes. There is no cure for MS, but rather a treatment of symptoms including physical therapy, frequent medical tests, and pain medications. The most common symptoms of MS are a lack of leg strength, balance, coordination, and cognitive decay, but these are also the most important skills to have in in ping pong. Udelson attributes table tennis as his most successful treatment, and without his health took a serious decline.

When the pandemic began and everything shut down for over a month, Udelson dropped all treatment and didn’t see his trainers or practice ping pong. “I felt like my entire physical condition was flushed down the toilet,” he said in a phone interview.

After the center underwent its safety precautions, Asgarali set up private lessons with Udelson three times a week. Within a couple of weeks, Udelson said he felt worlds better. He said his doctor has been continuously amazed at his test results since beginning lessons and she credits table tennis for his body’s health and endurance.

A study about the physiological demands of table tennis cites the importance of endurance in coaches’ training methods; “players are often not only physically exhausted after a competition, but also highly mentally tense.” Asgarali’s coaching mirrors these methods especially with his older players.  

Before the pandemic, Asgarali offered free classes on Tuesday mornings for people with neurological conditions because of the improvement he saw with Udelson’s MS. Udelson said his goal is “to create a revolution where people with MS learn about table tennis” and how it can help them.

With modified leagues resuming this week at the D.C. Table Tennis Center, senior members are holding out for when things return to normal and they can practice their passion again.

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