“I’m just another grateful athlete”
Carol Klenfner, 72, New York City, New York
Carol Klenfner knows it’s only table tennis, but she likes it.
With age, everyone has a story to tell, but we suspect only Carol can say she’s been in the world of rock and roll, and now rocks out playing table tennis in the National Senior Games. Sounds glamourous, but it would take a very bumpy patch of midlife challenges to reshape her life in unexpected and rewarding ways.
As a young adult, the home-grown New Yorker scrapped her way into public relations, seeing it was a profession where women could be managers and executives. Hard work in entry-level jobs got her referred to a large agency that exclusively handled tour publicity for rock and roll bands, spawning a whirlwind career. Carol worked with many of the most famous acts of the 70s, including Elton John, The Who, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull and the Eagles, among dozens of others. She played the game smart, and succeeded as a professional woman in a wild industry.
Carol moved on to become a top executive at a prestigious firm, serving a broad range of clients. Over the next four decades, she was grateful for marriage, two daughters and a solid career, proud to have succeeded in her native New York City.
In 2009, at age 64, her life started to fall apart. After recuperating from a recent back surgery, Carol had to endure the loss of her ailing husband. The situation required her to find a more affordable place to live. Bad news came in threes, as Carol was then shocked to find she was being laid off from her job. At her age, she knew finding a comparable position would be difficult if not impossible. As the following conversation relates, she felt like she was in solitary confinement, struggling to gather strength as she set up a boutique PR business working from her dining table.
To overcome the cloud of grief and isolation, Carol knew she had to get out of the home and find something to be engaged in. She caught a PBS documentary that profiled seniors in a table tennis tournament, and old memories of having fun playing ping pong as a kid bubbled up. The program moved her to check out Spin, New York’s popular table tennis-themed lounge and club. She and a friend loved the experience and worked their way into league play. Three years later, Carol has gained confidence and experience in two US Open national table tennis tournaments, qualifying in New York’s Empire State Games, and competing in the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana.
Carol Klenfner now wonders if table tennis saved her life in a way, and she feels like a rock star among her age peers who marvel at her renewed passion for life and dedication to pursue a sport. But she doesn’t consider herself that special, and reminds others to find their own way to “move a muscle, change a mood.” Carol found her Personal Best, and hopes she is an inspiration for others to pursue theirs.
OK, let’s get the glitter right out on the table. How did you become a rock and roll PR pioneer?
The music business in the grand old days of rock and roll in the 70s was like the wild west. There was no playbook. We were making it up as we went along – and we had a blast along the way.
When I started working as a receptionist at a radio station, it seemed to me that public relations was one of the few business areas where women were the heads of a department. I decided to use my writing samples and go into PR.
I started at a book publishing company, then worked for a firm involved with statewide labor union elections. I then got a job with the American Cancer Society, where one task was to book celebrities to speak at the local chapter’s annual luncheon. I always loved entertainment, and I realized being around the kind of people I was calling on was where I wanted to be.
With luck and pluck I found my way into the New York office of a big PR agency that exclusively handled rock and roll bands. One of my earliest gigs on the way up was doing press for the first Rock and Roll Revival at Madison Square Garden. I had the privilege of escorting Bill Haley around New York City for interviews. He was a real Southern gentleman.
Over those years I handled PR for at least 50 of the biggest rock bands —Elton John, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Aerosmith, Traffic, Pink Floyd, Yes, the Eagles…I could go on.
Did you get to interact with the artists very much?
I did, but I kept it very professional. I was a young woman in rock and roll, and it was a man’s world. But I wanted to be taken seriously. One of my claims to fame is that I could talk my way backstage if my name wasn’t on the list without compromising myself. I said “talk.” [Laugh]
I wasn’t looking to get really close with them, I just wanted to be around all of it. I did well because I was smart about it. And I knew I had the kind of job every kid in America wanted to do at that time. I have a lot of stories from those days.
Any particular memories come to mind?
I enjoyed working with Elton John back then. He was great. The Rolling Stones were also amazing. Keith Moon of The Who came to dinner with us one night and insisted on clearing the table and doing the dishes. He had such good manners! [Hearty Laugh]
It was also fun flying on Led Zeppelin’s jet and I stood in the wings during their stadium show in Philadelphia. Before he went onstage, Robert Plant borrowed my hair brush, and for years I treasured it with its golden curls. Another time, David Bowie was my client for an epic party onboard the SS Rotterdam docked on the Hudson. Beluga caviar and Dom Perignon with a small group of key press. Bowie floated above, very otherworldly and unreachable. The best thing about that awkward party was the leftovers which my friend and I downed at my kitchen table after the party. Four bottles of Dom champagne and an unopened tin of Black Sea beluga caviar, which we ate by the shovelful.
My husband signed the Blues Brothers to Atlantic Records, and we became friends with Belushi and Aykroyd. John’s widow is a friend, and I’m still in touch with Dan. I mean, there is glitter in what I did, but I never tried to puff it up, you know.
Fascinating. But we’re equally interested to know how you became a Senior Games athlete.
Well, I wasn’t completely new to table tennis. I grew up in the suburbs of Queens playing stick ball and punch ball in the streets. When we got home from school, we did our homework and went out to play. I was a real tomboy. One Christmas, I asked my parents for a baseball mitt instead of a doll.
When I was 12, my family moved to a different neighborhood in Queens and that was rough. But one day the doorbell rang and there were two moving men with a huge flat carton. The house had a finished basement, and my dad’s Uncle Max had sent us a surprise housewarming gift- a ping pong table!
Playing ball and ping pong was among the very few things my older brother and I enjoyed doing together. Usually he preferred teasing and breaking my things. So, the table was a wonderful gift and we had a lot of fun with it.
Did you get into any organized sports?
Sports opportunity came crashing to a stop in college when I was in a car accident. My hip was dislocated, and after five months on crutches, the doctors advised to take it easy and avoid impact like running or jogging – for the rest of my life.
So how did you become an athlete after the age of 60?
The way I found table tennis again is interesting.
In 2009, the bottom dropped out of my life. I had recently been through back surgery, and then my husband died after a difficult period when he was in and out of the hospital. It was a crazy time. I had to pack up the family apartment and find myself an affordable rental in Manhattan.
Then, three months after he died, in the middle of the Great Recession, I got laid off my full-time job at a PR agency. The industry got hit hard and I knew someone was going to go, but I never thought it would be me. I’ve watched that TV show Survivor since it first went on. I thought
I played a good social game, but I didn’t realize the target was on my back because I was a senior employee with a high salary. I didn’t see it coming.
I’ll never forget how alone and empty I felt schlepping my file cartons of work stuff back to my little apartment. I started doing my PR work freelance off my dining table. Eventually I had a couple of clients, but I knew that at my age and in that market, getting a full-time job wasn’t going to happen.
After a 35-year marriage, and 45 years working in an office surrounded by people, I was alone. Depression is not my thing, but I did feel terribly lonely and isolated. It was like solitary confinement. I wasn’t sure what was ahead for me, but I knew I needed to get out of the house.
So what pointed you to table tennis?
Four years ago, I stumbled across a British PBS TV documentary called “Ping Pong” about something called the World Veteran Tournament with people from 80 up to a hundred years old playing competitive table tennis.
But they weren’t just competing for medals, they were fighting for life. I understood that. Sometimes you have to fight to live.
You saw them as fighting for their life?
For the four people that were featured in the documentary, it was not just a game to them. It was grabbing ahold of life and refusing to let go.
After seeing that documentary, I knew it was a sport with a future, and so began my journey.
My friend Stephanie Palewski-Brumbach, who had also grown up in Queens, and I went to check out Spin, the ping pong club and restaurant owned by Susan Sarandon. We liked it, and thought we were good enough to try out for the women’s league. We were thrilled when we were admitted. So, I started playing more, and since I was freelancing I had the time to work at getting better.
Over the next year or so, I got tired of losing, got myself a coach, and started to win an occasional game. What a feeling! After losing a match to Jean Lim, one of the fierce young players in the women’s league, I told her I admired her focus and admitted my ambivalence about being willing to win. She replied, “If you want to win, you have to identify your opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them.” The way she said “exploit them” made me feel queasy.
So, you literally had to learn how to be competitive?
I’d been brought up to be a people pleaser. The best times with my brother were when we played sports. He was my first coach, and he taught me a lot. But for so much of my childhood I was kind of made to stay out of his way, and I was deferring to him. I’m still working to make winning feel comfortable.
In March 2016, I played my first official tournament, learning that in my category (the lowest) I could be playing all ages unless it’s a seniors event. I frequently played kids as young as 9, which is humbling because they came with their own cheering section – dad, mom, aunts & uncles, and shopping bags filled with snacks. I’ve lost some and won some. Winning is better!
I enjoyed playing the Empire State Senior Games in Cortland, and then I played in the US Open in Las Vegas. There were 200 tables set up in the convention center. Wow.
You made it to the National Senior Games this year. How different was that from your experience with all-age tournaments?
It was just fantastic being surrounded by people who were so happy to be there and so happy to participate. And some of them were older than myself! [Laugh] It gives me something to aspire to. When I do all ages tournaments, not only am I a woman, I’m also one of the oldest people there. At the Senior Games, I’m just another grateful athlete.
You won a ribbon at The Games. Is your goal to come back and get a medal?
I tell you, I was thrilled to win that ribbon at Nationals. I brag about it! [Chuckle] My goal right now is just to get better and improve my rating. My goal is to just keep going up. I’m working with my wonderful coach Matthew Khan twice a week, and I’m looking to play smarter rather than for longer hours.
One thing I’ve discovered in the process is that for me, the word “play" is one of the best four-letter words.
[Laugh] That’s great – never heard that one before!
That’s my line, and I take credit for it. Because I’m so humble. [Laugh]
Table tennis has introduced me to a new world of people who are smart, interesting and off-beat — plus I’ve got a couple of gold medals, a trophy, a ribbon and grand prize money totaling all of 30 bucks!
This does bring up a serious question: What does “play” really mean to you?
Hmmm. It means joy. It means losing myself in the moment. It’s flow. Nothing else matters when I’m playing.
So, do you feel like a rock star when you step out to play?
I don’t think there are a lot of rock stars, you know, household names, in the table tennis community. [Chuckle] It’s not a glamour sport. It’s an odd collection of wonderful people. But as an athlete, I do feel like a rock star among my contemporaries because there are very few people I know in my age group here in New York who are doing this kind of thing. Especially since I’ve come to this at such a late age. I’ve only been playing seriously for three years.
Many think they can’t do what you have done – pick up a sport after 50. What would you say to those people?
Find something you like to do and get better at it. Our bodies were made to move. To me, being physically active, even going for a walk, changes your outlook.
There’s a saying: “Move a muscle, change your mood.” That’s what I believe in. Just keep moving.
What other inspirations that have helped you to survive and cope through the challenges of life?
My mom was my inspiration. After my dad died, she moved into Manhattan from the suburbs and wanted to do things for herself. She had been a very successful piano teacher in Brooklyn before my brother and I came along, and she went back to it at around the same age I am now, and continued until she was 78. That kind of independence, that ‘reinvent yourself’ spirt, was so inspiring to me.
Another one comes to mind: I was at a dinner a year ago and we were talking about table tennis. One of the guests was Ken Frank, a well-known psychologist and psychoanalyst. He said, “You know, you have gotten something a lot of people don’t get- a second chance at life.” It refocused everything for me. I saw him six months later and thanked him for such a generous statement. He got pensive and replied, “It’s not just that you got a second chance. You took it. Not everybody does.”
Of course, you have gained significant health benefits.
Oh yes. Given my age and the things we all deal with, I think I’m in the best shape I’ve been of my life because of table tennis. It has also improved me mentally. I’m more focused and my ability to catch on to things is faster. I see a difference.
Chasing a little white ball going 60 miles an hour will do that for you!
Right! I can keep my eye on the ball now. And there’s so much going on around it. I just love the learning. It’s a complete thrill. I would say it’s one of the best things in my life. It’s the thing that gives me the most pleasure. There are times I am so damn happy that I’m playing, taking lessons, making friends. It just makes me happy. I don’t know if it saved my life, but it might have.
Truthfully, I hope I go out playing table tennis. [Laugh]
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