Flushed cheeks, a sweaty brow, a bring-it-on stance and an unwavering gaze on a tiny orange ball hurtling toward her — that’s how 72-year-old “PingPongista” Carol Klenfner bounces through life.
During her bi-weekly coaching session at a table tennis-themed club in the Flatiron District called Spin, the three-time national-level competitor showed off all the spins, chops and smashes that helped win her a ribbon at the National Senior Games in 2017.
“ ‘Play’ is probably the most underrated four-letter word. It’s my favorite,” the Queens native said. “We have such wonderful associations with playing when we were kids. Through the magic of doing this, I have play back in my life.”
‘Who am I now?’
Having handled public relations for rock and roll bands since the 1970s — The Who, Jethro Tull, The Rolling Stones, Eagles — Klenfner was no stranger to play. However, her life had fallen to pieces 10 years ago. She had surgery to correct her spinal stenosis, and was looking down the road to intensive physical therapy. A few months later, her husband passed away, leaving her incapable of being able to afford the East Village co-op where they had raised two daughters. While she prepared to move to a small rental apartment on the Upper West Side, she received news that she had suddenly been laid off from her long-time public relations job, after the Great Recession of 2008.
The days of following around rock stars on tour and taking home leftovers after a David Bowie party — six bottles of Dom Perignon and a pound of black caviar — had grinded to a halt. She had been known as a no-nonsense PR professional for more than 40 years, and suddenly, in less than six months, she had to reinvent herself.
“I asked myself, ‘Who am I now? What is it that I want to do?’” Klenfner recalled.
In the years that followed, she set up her own PR firm, working from her dining table at home. But she couldn’t beat the isolation.
In 2014, she watched “Ping Pong” — a BBC documentary about a group of eight table tennis players over the age of 80 competing in a world championship.
“They were obviously not in the best of health but they were driven by the desire to win as well as the desire to love, to move,” she said. “So, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a sport with a future.’”
Klenfner, who had only played the sport as a way to kill time with her older brother in the basement of her Bayside apartment in Queens, embarked on what she likes to call “the second leg” of her life.
Hard work pays off
Awash in the glow of dim lights illuminating a dark corner of Spin on a rainy Thursday in Manhattan, Klenfner embodied that transformation. She stood across from her coach, Matthew Khan, tightly clutching her bat (a habit Khan has been trying to break for a long time, she says) and carefully sizing up every ball he played her.
After a long rally, even as Khan yelled “good job” over the music blasting from the stereo, she shook her head in exasperation, knowing she could do better.
“She just started playing competitively, and nobody expected her to do that well at the Senior Games,” Khan, who has been coaching Klenfner for little over a year, said. “The way she applies herself, her dedication, her focus, her hard work — that paid off.”
Klenfner first played in the club’s women’s league, became frustrated with losing so often, and got a coach. Through her training, she gained enough confidence and skill to play competitively — and quickly move up the ranks.
From competing in all-ages tournaments where she wondered if her opponent would be old enough for their head to poke above the table to winning gold medals in singles and doubles matches at the Empire State Senior Games in 2018, Klenfner’s obsession with the sport skyrocketed.
“For me as a woman of a certain age, I grew up letting the people around me win and feeling bad if I was doing too well, especially in sports,” she said. “If I want to be good in table tennis — which I do, it’s become very important to me — then I have to allow myself to win. Winning is absolutely more fun than losing.”