Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Table Tennis: Dad still has killer instinct at age 93

Age shall not wear Harry Taylor, who intends to be competitive at the 17th world veteran table tennis championships. Photo / Martin Hunter
Age shall not wear Harry Taylor, who intends to be competitive at the 17th world veteran table tennis championships. Photo / Martin Hunter

Old dog for a hard road, right?

New Zealand is about to host the 17th world veteran table tennis championships. It's a big deal not only for countries such as Japan and China where chop, top spin and loop-drives come as naturally as breathing. It's the biggest table tennis tournament in the Southern Hemisphere.

Two thousand players from 60 countries are arriving in Auckland for the tournament that starts on Monday week. The two oldest are 93: German event regular Inge-Brigitte Herrmann is coming with a documentary team, and a wily competitor from Christchurch is making his world championships debut. His name is Harry Taylor, but I call him Dad.

Dad is playing in the over-85 division, the oldest age group. Word is an over-90 category will be added next time. Damn, Dad mused when he heard, that would have been good because eight years is a lot when you are 93.

This will be a oncer for Harry Taylor. Not necessarily because it is held only every two years, or that the next will be in Spain, or even because of his bladder cancer that twice-yearly chemotherapy keeps in check, or his diabetes, or waning sole kidney, or dicky knee, or bothersome calf-muscle cramps. He's never been much of a traveller, so home advantage is ideal.

The march of time never stopped his sport. While visiting me in Australia in the 1980s we trained together for the Christchurch marathon. It was the first marathon for both of us. I was in my 20s, Dad was 65. What was he doing making his debut in such a gruelling foot race at that age? "I thought I'd better not leave it too late," he quipped. His humour has never failed him and nor has his heart. He ran long into his 70s, rode a mountainbike into his 80s.

As for travel, when I checked for this report whether he'd been overseas besides that visit to Australia he said, "Not since the war". He fought in the Solomons against the Japanese and in Italy against the Germans. The biggest teams coming for the table tennis are from Japan and Germany.

When, long ago, I asked as boys of a certain age will, whether he'd killed anyone in the war, he said: "I hope not." As I grew older and more thoughtful, I liked the sound of that answer all the more. After the war he posted the German authorities identity documents he'd found and later received a letter from a grateful widow who hadn't known her husband's fate. People are people, seemed to be Dad's philosophy.

But in sport Harry Taylor always was a killer. It doesn't matter whether you win or lose, but it's better to win, he'd say.

One of my sisters last year took him to see the terrific documentary film Ping Pong, which followed eight of the oldest players from around the world to the 2010 edition of this veterans' tournament ("veterans start at 40) in Inner Mongolia. The film was really about the curve of life, about living for the moment, about how the will stays sharp even when the physical force is blunted. There were plenty of killers. It's full title is Ping Pong: You're never too old for gold, and it was laugh-out-loud funny and tear-jerkingly sad.

Dad skipped the pathos. "I think I'd be competitive," was his verdict when I asked what he thought of the film.

Harry has played the game most of his adult life and though not a star player in earlier days, there has been no stopping him in later decades. He has won nine national veterans' titles, and was in the newspaper and on the radio after he won, aged 90, all his singles matches in his comeback to Christchurch inter-club competition. His team played Canterbury University, average age 20.

To celebrate his 90th birthday he beat all three of his children, including a daughter once good enough to win a national open doubles title. I tried to move him around in the hope his legs would go. I lost, one game to two. Old age and treachery will beat youth and skill, he reckoned, though the skill, along with the cunning, were at his end of the table.

In the three years since, Father Time has been reeling him in. There are odd mornings when he's felt so lousy it's been hard to rise. He's inclined now to say that "old age is a fulltime job". Making a cuppa, managing his blood-sugar levels and wrestling with the cryptic crossword soak up his days.

But he's been practising and doing the exercises the gym instructor gave him and been walking Bromley's earthquake-fractured pavements and getting fortnightly leg massages for those cramps. The next round of debilitating chemo has been put off until after the champs, so he's ready as he'll ever be. Pity about my failure to win him over to modern nutrition such as sports drinks. Harry's sticking with the tried and true cups of tea. Stubborn, eh.

The men's over-85 singles has 20 entrants, killers all no doubt. My sister has counselled him not to expect to win a match, impressed upon him that taking part as the oldest competitor is victory in itself. Naturally, Dad didn't buy it. "I'll have to win one match!" he retorted.

History says you can never count him out, and knowing Dad, he'll give it everything. Good luck Harry Taylor, 93 years young.

The 2014 World Veteran Table Tennis Champions run from Monday May 12 through Saturday at Trusts Arena in Henderson.


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