By Tammy Scileppi
Bayside native Carol Klenfner has found something new… and all she had to do was follow the bouncing ball.
The sport of ping pong has opened up a whole new world for the energetic 72-year-old New Yorker, who has become a three-time national level table tennis player, now enjoying an exciting new chapter in her busy life.
Klenfner is a regular at her favorite hangout, Spin, located in the Flatiron District at 48 E. 23rd St. It’s where you can find her about four times a week, paddle in hand, focusing her gaze on a little orange ball. It’s also where she comes to find her inner peace.
On Sundays, she leads the women’s league. She also gets coaching sessions from her “wonderful” instructor Matthew Khan — a Queens resident — on Tuesdays and Fridays, and enjoys playing and socializing with “a fun, eclectic group of people,” on Wednesdays and Fridays.
When she’s not working hard to take advantage of that sweet spot in the paddle to produce significant amounts of spin, or trying to master a super heavy backspin serve, Klenfner is still doing PR and juggling both work and play with ease.
Fit and determined, she is looking forward to competing in the Empire State Games in Cortland — located in upstate New York — in June. Last time around, she won two gold medals, which qualified her to play in the 2017 National Senior Games, where she was “ribboned.”
Nothing else seems to matter when this woman of a certain age becomes one with her paddle.
“The thing about table tennis is that when I’m playing, I can tune out the rest of the world. You have to, because it all moves so fast,” Klenfner said. “I’ve noticed that playing has made my reflexes faster. Also, it brings back the feeling of being a child when I would go out and play. I think the word ‘play’ is one of the greatest four-letter words ever. Also, table tennis is a much more fun workout for body and mind than going to the gym and walking a treadmill.”
It all started when young Carol — who grew up in Bayside — and her family moved from their first home by the LIRR station to a house with a finished basement near the intersection of Bell and Northern boulevards.
“One day, the doorbell rang. Outside were two giant delivery guys with a big flat box. Turned out to be a ping pong table sent to us by my dad’s uncle as a surprise gift. We played a lot but not seriously. In those days it was just ‘ping pong,’ not table tennis,” Klenfner said.
Back then, the Bayside of her childhood was bucolic. She remembered blackberry bushes, crabapple trees — her mom, a piano teacher, used them to bake pies — and lots of open space.
“My father was the optometrist on Bell, a fixture in the community. Walking down the street with him was like being with the mayor,” Klenfner said. “He knew everyone and they all stopped to chat with him. When he died (in 1967), the Bayside Times featured his obit on the front page. My brother and I played stickball in the streets, roller skated, rode our bikes, etc. I went to PS 41, JHS 158 and Bayside High School.”
So, why ping pong?
Fast forward to about five years ago. After a series of setbacks, Klenfner was trying to pull herself up by her boot straps and move forward with her life. It was a difficult time. Her husband died in 2009, and she got laid off from her full-time job at a PR agency as a result of the recession. After selling the East Village apartment where she raised her children, she downsized and moved into smaller digs, renting on the Upper West Side.
Embracing her new reality, the savvy businesswoman set up a small freelance PR business, working from her dining table. But she missed the excitement of her old job. Klenfner said her first big PR gig involved handling publicity for iconic rock ‘n’ roll stars, like the Rolling Stones, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, and Elton John. She was his PR rep on his first ever trip to New York.
“I felt isolated after having a family around me and working for decades in offices. Then I happened to see a documentary on PBS called ‘Ping Pong,’ which focused on a senior tournament called the World Veterans Championships,” Klenfner said. “It followed four table tennis players from 80-100 years old and their struggle to win medals — and to stay alive. It was motivating. So, I started to play at Spin with a friend who also grew up in Queens, with a ping pong table in her basement. We loved it. We tried out for the Women’s League at Spin and made the cut. Eventually, I got tired of losing and decided to take it more seriously and get coaching.”
“It’s never too late to learn,” she insists.
Spin is the coolest place to play table tennis, according to Klenfner.
“It’s more than a ping pong club. It’s also a lounge and bar, and the mix of players come from all worlds,” she said. “The sport attracts a highly intelligent, offbeat set of people and I’ve met a lot of down-to-earth players from all walks of life, including well-known actors, shoe designers, comedy writers, and others,” she said, adding, “I love meeting new people and that serves me well in life. I always bring my ability to get along with people to everything I do.”
The mother of two said her daughters, Kate and Bryn, are super proud of their mom — as are her friends, who are impressed at how quickly she picked up this sport and how well she’s doing.
A fierce competitor, the ping pong diva is getting ready to show off her athleticism, passion, skill and fast reflexes once again, when she plays in Las Vegas at yet another competition, the Word Veterans Championship — her original motivator from the documentary — in June. She said it feels like “a closing of the circle to actually play that tournament.”
It’s all those qualities, combined with what she calls “the ability to gauge the opponent’s weakness — and exploit them,” that make for a great ping pong player. Klenfner has plans to play more tournaments, and said her mission is to keep improving her game.
Table tennis is all about having fun and not taking life too seriously. The increasingly popular sport, which has evolved into a cultural movement of sorts, has the power to connect different people, regardless of age, gender or background.
Klenfner’s story brings to mind those memorable lyrics from a well-known song of one of her former clients: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, well you just might find you get what you need.”