Meet America's 88-Year-Old World Table Tennis Champ
'Ping Pong,' a film premiering this week on PBS, highlights Lisa Modlich's dominance and exuberance
She intimidates opponents with her strength and swagger. She steamrolls more experienced competition. She is an American force in an event typically dominated by players from Europe and Asia.
She is Lisa Modlich, 88, and she's a table tennis world champion.
Modlich's journey to the top is the subject of the new documentary, Ping Pong, which will have its U.S. television premiere September 9 on PBS stations nationwide as part of the "POV" documentary series. (Check local listings or stream the video on the POV website from September 10–14.)
For the film, British brothers Hugh Hartford (director) and Anson Hartford (producer) followed seven international players as they converged on China's Inner Mongolia region to compete in the over-80 section of the 2010 World Veterans Table Tennis Championships.
Modlich was competing for the world title for the first time. She's a native of Vienna who is fluent in five languages — and spent several years acquiring conversational Chinese in advance of the world championships. She fought in the French Resistance as a young woman and emigrated to the United States 65 years ago. A retired legal secretary, she now resides in Houston.
Modlich, a lifelong tennis player, turned to ping pong about 20 years ago. "It got too warm" to keep playing tennis outside, she says, so she took up the indoor sport. After winning her first gold medal in the 1992 Houston Senior Olympics, she says, "I got greedy and I wanted more."
She's never looked back, traveling across the country to claim national titles in larger fields and older age groups. As seemingly disdainful of her opponents as Michael Jordan in his prime, Modlich similarly thrives on the opportunity to compete on her sport's biggest stages. "You get a high after you play," she says. "I don't drink, but I think it's almost like being drunk when you win a medal."
Modlich practices regularly but believes she brings innate advantages to the table. "There's a certain connection between eyes and elbow that you're born with," she says. "People can play 50 years and not win anything. The connection has to be there. You can learn how to play and how to hold the racquet, but the reaction to the ball is inborn. It doesn't change with age. The muscles get slower, not your reaction."
During matches, she focuses on locating her returns. "It's not how hard you play, it's where you put the ball," she says. "I try to make people work."
Inspiration in an International Field
"I had no idea about veterans athletics, let alone veterans table tennis world championships," Hugh Hartford says. He got the idea for his film after spotting a photo of Dorothy DeLow of Australia in an in-flight magazine. The feature related her experience competing at a previous world championships in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Hartford says he saw the image of her standing at the table in her Australian national team uniform and thought, "Someone representing her country at the age of 97? There's got to be a story behind that." DeLow was 101 when she returned to compete in Inner Mongolia — and was trounced by Modlich.
Hartford soon sought out other players, like Les D'Arcy of England, who, in addition to competing in table tennis, had set multiple records as a senior weightlifter and hammer thrower. "I met him, and in minutes I could see how his competitive spirit feeds into everything he does," Hartford says. (D'Arcy died in February at age 91.)
Eventually the filmmakers settled on the seven players featured in the film, including additional competitors from the U.K., Germany and Sweden. "They each brought a new life experience, a new story to tell," Hartford says, but there were some commonalities. For example, many spent their free time, especially their training time, with much younger people. "Their friendships exist outside of age," he says, "and there may be practicalities to that — eventually you simply run out of people to play against. So they often play with teenagers."
Hartford's film has all the elements of classic sports movies: a major stadium (it was built for the 2008 Olympics), an opening ceremony with a parade of flags, national TV news coverage (within China), knockout rounds and mounting tension as the number of tables on the main floor dwindles and competitors leave the field and join the growing number of spectators in the stands as the finals approach.
There is gamesmanship as well. "The last girl I played, when she came to the table to greet me, she didn't shake hands. She bowed with her head almost all the way to the floor," Modlich says. But she herself was unable to bow that low. "So I gave her a royal curtsy like they do in Austria, and everyone clapped and laughed. I think it upset her.
"Then I won rather easily."
At many screenings in the U.K. and the U.S., the film is presented in senior centers and community centers that have ping pong tables on site, with audience members encouraged to play after seeing the movie. Says Hartford, "It was never our intention [to inspire other older people to take up table tennis], but I'm delighted that's what it seems to be doing."
Reclaiming the Throne
The championships are held every two years. An injury prevented Modlich from defending her title in 2012, but she says she's primed to return next year to reclaim it when the event comes to New Zealand. "Nobody pays for you. The sport's not subsidized," she says. "I don't care. We'll still go."
Modlich's husband, Joachim, is always by her side at tournaments. A competitive sharpshooter 25 years her junior, she says that he is "a very good table tennis player as well. Once in a while he can beat me, but he's a little younger."
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The tournament's oldest grouping had been 85-plus, but it's expected to add a 90-plus section before the New Zealand event, as older competitors continue to play at a high level. Without the change, a player like DeLow, now 102, could face opponents up to 15 years younger. Modlich, who'll be 89 at the New Zealand tournament, would be among the oldest players in her age group.
She has no worries about her conditioning for the event. Modlich is committed to an active lifestyle and is baffled that other Americans don't follow it as well. "Don't get stuck behind the television, that's all there is to it," she says. "Instead of watching television, get up and take up some sort of sport where you have to move — a fast sport like table tennis — and keep it up as long as you can.
"If I start losing, maybe I should give it up," she says, quickly laughing and correcting herself. "No, I won't."