Monday mornings at the Janesville Senior Center are filled with the sounds of shuffling feet. That’s due to the morning line dancing class. Around 10:30 a.m., those sounds are replaced with a different beat. The second floor recreation room plays host to the senior center’s popular ping pong club.
Velma Burke is one of the club’s most frequent attendees. A former tennis player, she was convinced to join the club by a friend. She soon traded in her racket for a paddle.
“I got hooked. I really enjoyed the game,” Burke said.
Larry Hynek is an Army veteran who hadn’t picked up a paddle in decades.
“When I was in the Army I played a lot, cheap entertainment, and after I got out of the Army I never played again for 40 years,” Hynek said.
Now retired, Larry was just looking to stay active.
“I don’t like sitting around. I’m too antsy,” Hynek said.
Mike Nelson hadn’t played ping pong in decades either. He joined to stay in shape.
“I’ve been able to keep my weight down and I think ping pong does help,” Nelson said.
The club meets three mornings a week. Burke says they’ve had more than two dozen players turn up some days, but usually it’s around a dozen, come health or high water.
“We’ve got guys that come down here with canes. They put their cane down and play,” Hynek said.
Before long, club members began testing their skills outside of the Janesville Senior Center. Burke, Hynek and other players began entering the annual Wisconsin Senior Games in Madison, and the Wisconsin Senior Olympics in Milwaukee.
Burke has won multiple gold medals in both competitions, making her one of the most accomplished ping pong players in Wisconsin. In 2013, Burke and Hynek took their talent across state lines and qualified for the National Senior Games in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It’s like the first time you go to Las Vegas or something,” Hynek said, “It’s an experience. The venue is huge.”
In 2015, the National Senior Games came to Minneapolis, Minnesota, so Burke and Hynek decided to go again. This time Nelson came along too.
“It was just fun being there,” Nelson said, “The people we played were all real nice people too.”
This time Burke served up a sixth place finish in the singles competition. Hynek and Nelson were satisfied with their performance too.
“When you go up there you want to win at least one game, and Mike and I won a game in doubles,” Hynek said, “All I wanted to do is be able to beat somebody, which we did.”
All three players say competing for a national title was fun, but what keeps them coming back to the Janesville ping pong tables each week is their friendship.
“We laugh and joke and clown around you know,” Hynek said, “Laughter’s good for a person too, no matter what age you are.”
That laughter, and Velma’s home baked cookies, have been a winning recipe for the Janesville Senior Ping Pong Club.
“We just have a lot of fun,” Burke said, “We bring cookies and have hugs.”