At 75 years old, Decatur resident still brings his A-game to table tennisCharlie Slater. Photo by Ellie Ritter
Whether he’s up against an 8-year-old prodigy or an 82-year-old player, Charlie Slater brings his best when it comes to table tennis.
The 75-year-old Decatur resident has played table tennis since he was 9, back when he “played with the landlady’s daughter in the basement,” Slater said. He continued to play through college and became more serious when he joined Delta Air Lines in 1970.
“I was heavily involved in Delta’s annual tournaments for a while,” Slater said, adding that he even directed the tournaments for a few years.
Now, he continues to play at least once a week, whether it’s at the Decatur Recreation Center on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings or at the Central DeKalb Senior Center (CDSC), where the sport is more recreational.
“I like to humbly think I’m somewhat of a superstar over at the CDSC,” he said. “They’ve got a couple of tables, we can get some games going, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Even though Slater says he’s “never been an intense player,” he still plays competitively and has even participated in the Huntsman World Senior Games, one of the largest international multi-sport events in the world for seniors.
The Huntsman games take place every October in St. George, Utah, and bring over 11 thousand participants who are over 50 years old, with around 200 participants in table tennis, Slater said. This year will mark Slater’s 15th consecutive year participating.
Some of the matches Slater has played at the Huntsman games are among his most memorable.
“One year at Huntsman, I was playing a match against this lady, and I tried offense against her but she just kept hitting back and back again,” he said. “So I decided to play her game back at her, just being real patient, and someone said that one point went on for 15 minutes. The whole game was 45 minutes – and these things usually take 5, maybe 6, minutes.”
But that sort of patience is exactly Slater’s style: he describes himself as a calm, defensive player.
“I get teased a lot because I don’t really break a sweat, and I stay even keeled,” he said. “The key to my game is good defense and patience.”
At Huntsman and other tournaments, players are given a formula-based ranking to seed matches and determine who plays who. Between around 8,000 total players of all ages and backgrounds, Slater’s ranked in the middle, which is especially remarkable given his age, he said.
Because of his ranking, Slater has taken on a variety of opponents, including an 8-year-old boy who Slater said is now being trained for the Olympics.
“He beat me, of course,” Slater said. “We played back in 2016, and now, I still carry around a picture of him.”
Several years before then, Slater also played a memorable match against an 82-year-old.
“I was 62 at the time, and I was playing my heart out but he still won,” Slater said. “It was absolutely a great time, though. We took pictures together and talked.”
Matches like these – ones where he plays against people of all ages and backgrounds – make table tennis “a great equalizer” in Slater’s eyes. In table tennis, age, size and physicality matter much less than the mentality behind the game.
“It’s just a question of cunning, agility and reflexes,” he said. “Because of that, knock on wood, I’m still able to compete at this age.”
Still, one of the misconceptions Slater hears about table tennis is that it’s not a sport because it doesn’t require exercise.
“I think table tennis is a lot more of a sport than some other things we do consider to be sports,” he said. “It can be like a cardio workout. Once you get going, you can really get your heart rate up.”
Slater also attributes some misconceptions about table tennis to the fact that it’s less commonly played in the United States than it is in other parts of the world.
“Table tennis is in the shadow of the ‘big three’ in the United States, meaning football, basketball and baseball,” he said. “So it’s kind of an underground sport here in the U.S., but it’s taken seriously almost everywhere else in the world.”
Despite some misconceptions about the sport, Slater said he’s proud to play and to get other seniors – such as those at the CDSC – involved in playing.
In addition to playing, Slater also runs a newsletter and website for Decatur Table Tennis, the group that plays twice a week at the Decatur Recreation Center. His newsletter reaches more than 775 people.
For the past seven years, Slater has also run a summer camp for children ages 8-17 interested in table tennis, which takes place at the Decatur Recreation Center as well. This year’s camp sold out, he said.
“I think one of the greatest things about table tennis is that anybody – and I mean anybody – can play,” he said. “Whether it’s for fun or for competition, you can come from any background and pick up a paddle. That’s what makes it special to me.”