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Veteran table tennis players get competitive in Match of the Week

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: November 15, 2012

  • FRIENDS AGAIN: Dave Trett (left) and David Silverleaf are all smiles after their ping pong ding-dong. Picture: Mike Southon. To order call 0844 4060 269 and quote Ref: BNMS20121030G-010_C

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THEIR life stories sound like something out of a film but this was Instow Parish Hall, not Inner Mongolia.

The release of documentary movie Ping Pong this year has catapulted veterans' table tennis into the national media with rave reviews.

It was made by brothers Hugh and Anson Hartford, formerly of West Buckland School, and features players at the over-80s world championships in Inner Mongolia.

We see a 90-year-old German who stopped eating after her husband died, became confused, and was heading into a fog of dementia until table tennis came to her aid.

The film addresses ageing, friendship, ambition and love, while the main impression left on those who see it is of the game's rejuvenating effect."A sort of Rocky for senior citizens," said Anson.

The central character is Les D'Arcy, 91, from Wakefield, who quotes poetry and weight trains three times a week.

Dave Trett may not quote poetry but he goes to his local gym in Northam four times a week.

And when Trett, 85, took on David Silverleaf, 84, in a North Devon division three match at Instow, it was no less competitive than any scene from Ping Pong.

There was even a moment when Silverleaf accused Trett of not playing fair, of disguising his service illegally and serving before he was ready.

Although both players said they would prefer we did not mention it, the flashpoint illustrated the intensity of their ambition – even at their age.

"They are not just standing there knocking the ball backwards and forwards, they play to win," said Perry Scibilia, captain of the Silver Leaves team named after its octogenarian member.

"That was a very rare moment," said Silverleaf after his 3-0 defeat. "You play to enjoy but you play to win as well."

For Trett it was soon all forgiven and forgotten. "That's nothing," he said. "I like to win but I treat it as a friendly game now."

After the lives Trett and Silverleaf have led there was so much more to focus on than a moment's disagreement. This was the former factory worker against the retired nuclear engineer, the one-time sparring partner to the Turpin brothers versus the ex-hockey player.

Yet, for all the contrast, Trett and Silverleaf have one thing in common. They played table tennis in their youth, stopped for decades, then resumed deep into pensioner age.

Trett started playing at a gym in Warwick in 1949. "But I packed up in 1957 and did not start again until 2000," he said.

It was primarily a boxing gym and that was where his greatest interest lay.

"I used to do a lot of sparring and when I stopped playing table tennis I carried on as a gym fighter with the Turpins," he said.

Randolph Turpin was Europe's best middleweight of the 1940s and 1950s, outpointing Sugar Ray Robinson to become Britain's first black world champion in 1951. Dick Turpin, the eldest of three boxing brothers, was the first black fighter to win a British title, while Jackie Turpin was a successful featherweight.

"I grew up with Randolph, he was the same age as me," said Trett. "I never fought competitively – I was just happy to do it as a sporting thing.

"I went to nearly all Randolph's fights. I always got free tickets. I was what you called a gym boxer, sparring with people in different weights – heavyweights, lightweights, anybody.

"You took a few and gave a few but Randolph didn't go all out because that was the kind of person he was."

Not like Tommy Icke. "In the second round he hit me so hard I was out for two minutes, but he did go on to win the British lightweight title," said Trett.

While his boxing days ended in his early forties, another passion lives on – and he has the book to prove his love of the subject.

Turn to the acknowledgements in A History Of Jazz In Britain, by Jim Godbolt, and in the credits you will find Trett's name listed among acclaimed musicians such as Humphrey Lyttelton, George Melly and Steve Race.

"I have been interested in jazz since 1942," said Trett. "My brother liked it, my mother liked it, and they used to take me to the jazz clubs in London. That is how I got interested and I helped research the book."

Silverleaf's introduction to table tennis came early. "I played when I was 3, on the dining room table with my elder brother," he said.

Although it did not last, he picked it up again, at 13, at The Leys boarding school in Cambridge.

"I played with another young man who, like me, graduated to the highest echelons of hockey," said Silverleaf. "It was the prime hockey school in England at that time.

"We played table tennis endlessly so, by the time I went to Glasgow University at 17, I was already a player of university standard."

There was no league to play in, though, and Silverleaf's sporting skills received wider exposure through hockey.

That said, he did once draw attention for his table tennis when, visiting Milan University, he was noticed as a player of some talent while going through his paces in the students' union, and was invited to play the university champion.

"It was probably the most memorable match I ever played," said Silverleaf. "I was also playing 100 Italians who were around the table on his side. He beat me but only by about 21-19 each game."

At hockey, Silverleaf was on course for a Scotland call-up when his head was split open by a stick.

"I was never quite that good again but I did play for the university continuously and we were always the top team in Scotland," he said.

Graduating in maths and natural philosophy, following up with a PhD in experimental nuclear physics, Silverleaf took up a career with the Central Electricity Generating Board, making what he described as "some significant contributions to the UK's nuclear power programme".

Retiring at 57, after 44 years living in Wimbledon, he moved to Instow 19 months ago and rediscovered table tennis. "I saw it was being played in the village hall and thought I would give it a shot again," said Silverleaf. "I didn't play from the age of about 22 until last year when I was 83."

Trett moved to North Devon in 2003, partly because he suffers chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

"My doctor said, 'If you want to prolong your life, you will have to go down on the coast'," he said.

"I worked in factories all my life – welding, milling, heavy machine work, with asbestos for ten years making boilers. It has been caused by breathing the dust and the fumes."

Not that it stopped him from running half marathons and taking up powerlifting before returning to table tennis at 73.

"His enthusiasm is fabulous," said Tim Cooke, the captain of his Northam Lights team. "Just because he is in his eighties does not mean he is less competitive than he was in his twenties."

Trett won two of his three singles matches in Northam's 7-3 victory.

Silverleaf lost all three of his but partnered Scibilia to a 3-0 win over Cooke and Maggie Moys in the one doubles rubber.

Cooke won three singles but Silverleaf took a game off him, losing 11-8, 10-12, 11-2, 11-7.

"He's got good shots," said Cooke. "He can't move around the table quickly but, when he gets the chance to play a shot, he kills it."

For Trett, the benefits of table tennis are priceless. "Agility, breathing, coordination," he said. "And it keeps your brain working."

Which sounds like a line from the film, the one delivered by 90-year-old German Inge Hermann.

Explaining her confusion after she stopped eating, Hermann said: "I got an illness in my brain and couldn't think clearly any more. Table tennis saved me."

From Inner Mongolia to Instow, Ping Pong has become The Healing Game.

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