McLain on the Games: ‘I’m back’

After 4-year hiatus, champion table tennis player returns

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

Related coverage
Official results
Photo gallery – table tennis
* April 15: Pickleball ‘a tongue hanging out game’
* April 14: Taylor, Clemmons, Wells lead swimming
* April 14: Women’s bocce
* April 13: Opening ceremony
* April 13: Men’s bocce ball opens Games
* March 18: Last day to register
* March 9: No rhythm required
* Feb. 8: Senior Games set for April
* Oct. 18, 2014: 4 locals win gold at NC Senior Games

HAMLET — Barbara McLain was in a position she wasn’t used to being in. Sort of.

The familiar part was that the 81-year-old woman was winning the table tennis match. Rather easily. The strange feeling was feeling out of breath while upping her lead.

“Well, I used to play a lot,” said the Richmond County resident. “I’m out of breath. This is ridiculous. That was not the speed I’m used to playing at.”

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Barbara McLain, 81, allowed only nine points in four table tennis games against two opponents on Thursday at the Hamlet Senior Center.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Barbara McLain, 81, allowed only nine points in four table tennis games against two opponents on Thursday at the Hamlet Senior Center.

It wasn’t a complaint but for the long-time competitor it was merely an observation. Others, though, could be fooled as the took on two opponents in the 25th annual Senior Games of Richmond County on Thursday afternoon at the Hamlet Senior Center.

After a four-year hiatus from the Games, sparked by personal and medical issues, McLain returned to the table tennis tournament with something to prove. And it didn’t take long for her to do so, dispatching Evelyn Snow 11-2, 11-2 and Eugene McLean 11-3, 11-2, en route to the gold medal in the women’s 80-84 age division.

“You let me have one,” McLean quipped when he scored his first point on McLain.

But it wasn’t on purpose. Smiling between serves and volleys, McLain was all business while the small yellow ball was in play. The southpaw with a quick strike and a custom paddle brought out of retirement sliced the ball this way and that and cruised to easy victories.

“I’m back,” McLain stated.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Then she thought more about it.

“I’ve played better than that,” she said.

In what sometimes might seem like a previous life, McLain won the county Senior Games for “10 to 15” years — consecutively — and represented Richmond County at the North Carolina Senior Games for several years. A multiple-time state champ, McLain paid her own way to nationals with table tennis doubles teammate Barbara Thomas and competed in places like Baton Rouge, La., Hampton Roads, Va., and Pittsburgh, Pa. McLain and Thomas teamed up to place seventh at nationals twice, fourth once and earned a coveted medal, the bronze, at another nationals event.

McLain returned to North Carolina from Tennessee in 1985 and that October learned of the Senior Games through a local newspaper. The next year, she registered for the competition at Second Baptist Church in Hamlet.

“I just showed up,” McLain said, not yet realizing the sometimes informality of the Games.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Yes, Barbara McLain moved to her left (your right) and returned this shot for the point.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Yes, Barbara McLain moved to her left (your right) and returned this shot for the point.

In the beginning, finding a sparring partner on the table tennis court wasn’t easy.

“Not any women could hit the ball,” McLain said.

But Barbara Thomas could, and the two soon became partners.

“I bet we played two to three times a week forever,” McLain. “There was someone who could hit the ball back.”

McLain, who worked for years as a community development specialist for the city of Rockingham, under Sandy Ridley, spends a lot of time gardening these days. She said she doesn’t expect to compete in the state Games this fall.

She doesn’t need another medal.

“Iv’e got those medals up in the sunroom,” she said of her state Games victories, “but I didn’t label them what they were for” or what years.

* * * 

Official scorers Terry Mercer and Mike Deese were able to cope with a less-than-perfect bracket on Thursday to ensure everyone had a chance to play.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Eugene McLean was happy to score just once against Barbara McLain.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Eugene McLean was happy to score just once against Barbara McLain.

The results: Mark Reeves won the men’s 60-64 gold, Deese was first in the 65-69 and Jerry Nelson won in the 70-74 age division. Eugene McLean was first in the 80-84 division.

In women’s tourney play, Diane Deese took first in the 65-69 division while Evelyn Snow on the 70-74 bracket. McLain, as noted, placed first in the women’s 80-84 age group.

* * * 

It wasn’t all about winning. At least, not for everyone.

Brenda Keith, 61, of Rockingham, took second in the women’s 65-69 age division. But the final placing didn’t reflect her approach to the game. Less experienced than players such as Mike or Diane Deese, or McLain, Keith questioned the rules whenever possible and emphasized the idea of just being there to enjoy the moment.

“Do we need a bigger ball,” Keith asked when her partner missed a couple of consecutive efforts at returning a serve.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Volleying wasn’t a strong suit in her 11-4, 11-1 victory over Sallie Thomas, 68, of Rockingham, in opening-round play. But chasing after the bouncing yellow ball to the far corners of the room ensured that everyone was “gettin’ a lot of exercise anyway.”

Keith also wasn’t afraid to help along her opponent.

“You’re not supposed to take that many swings” at it, Keith said.

Keith fell to Diane Deese 11-8, 11-3 in the second round.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Mike Deese earned gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Mike Deese earned gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Diane Deese earned gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Diane Deese earned gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Jerry Anderson won gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Jerry Anderson won gold.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Brenda Keith earned the silver medal in her age group.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Brenda Keith earned the silver medal in her age group.

Filed in: Featured News, Hamlet, Health, Hoffman, News, Rockingham, Sports

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