DUO OF 1984 TABLE TENNIS PARALYMPIANS RETURN TO ENGLAND IN 2012 TO REPRESENT TEAM USA.
After representing Team USA in Table Tennis at the 1984 Paralympic Games in Stoke Mandeville England both Pam Fontaine and I retired from table tennis, graduated from college and went our separate ways. I lost contact with Pam for about 20 years. She went about her life in Texas as I did the same in Connecticut. Now that our sons, Pam has two and I have one, are over the age of 18 the demands of parenthood are not as taxing which led us back to our passion for table tennis.
Unbeknownst to me, Pam had started playing table tennis once again about 2 years before I did. I had been back in the sport of table tennis for about 6 months before I found out that Pam was also playing competitively again. After Pam and I reconnected it was like our relationship in college as friends and on the table tennis table was never interrupted.
I had not seen Pam in about 20 years before we met back up again in December of 2008 at the U.S. Nationals in Las Vegas. It was awesome to see Pam again and get back on a table tennis table with her. It was Pam who introduced me to table tennis in 1983 at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio where we both attended college. Before meeting Pam in college I never thought I would be an athlete again after a diving accident left me paralyzed from the chest down in 1979. Having been a successful able bodied athlete and with Pam’s encouragement I decided to give table tennis a try. I would not have been a Paralympian in 1984 if it had not been for Pam and her relentless ways.
After meeting back up with Pam in December of 2008 at the U.S. Nationals we discussed how great it would be if we could once again make the Paralympic Team together in 2012 and as coincidence would have it we would hopefully be representing Team USA in the same host country of England as we did back in 1984. This started out to be a far fetched dream and as months went on we jokingly decided to put a plan together to see if we could do it. Pam and I were not team/doubles partners at the Paralympics in 1984 because there were more female wheelchair players in the sport back in 1984 so each of us were partnered up with a player closer to our disability class. So Pam and I thought It would be great to see if we could be 2012 Paralympians as Team partners also being that we did not accomplish that feat in 1984.
Being that Pam and I were no longer living in the same dorm playing table tennis together like in 1984 we had to find a way to achieve our 2012 Paralympic goal living hundreds of miles away from each other. Pam primarily trains in the Dallas area with Coaches Keith Evans and Daniel Rutenberg and my Coach Roman Tinyszin and I train at various locations in Connecticut. Pam and I also try to train together a couple times a year whether it be in Texas or Connecticut.
Disabled athletes play in International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) tournaments to try to gain enough world ranking points to move up the world ranking list in their perspective disabled classes in hopes of being ranked high enough so when Paralympic selections are made you can qualify for a Paralympic bid. Keeping that in mind, our first ITTF tournament together was in 2009 at the ParaPan Am games in Margarita Island Venezuela. Due to the low number of female class 2 participants in table tennis most times I have no choice but to play up in female class 3 which means I am at a disadvantage to start because I am forced to compete against athletes less disabled than I. It just so happens that Pam is a female class 3 player so in singles I was up against her and several other players from South America for a medal. Pam wound up winning the Gold Medal in the female singles class 1-3 event and while I did not medal in singles Pam and I won the gold medal in the female class 1-3 team event. This was a confidence builder and led both Pam and I to believe that what started as a far fetched Paralympic dream talked about at the 2008 U.S. Nationals could quite possibly become a reality.
Due to the nature of the ITTF World Ranking system the points Pam and I earned in Venezuela would fall off our point total for 2012 Paralympic selections but the success we experienced in Venezuela made us more determined than ever to work as hard as we could to achieve our goal. Knowing that 2011 would be the year Pam and I would have to travel the globe to participate in tournaments for valuable ITTF points we chose to train as hard as we could in the U.S. and only compete together in one ITTF tournament in 2010 in Costa Rica. As a team in Costa Rica Pam and I struggled due to the low number of female class 1-3 athletes entered in this tournament. Pam and I were forced to play in a combined class of 2-5 which put us at a huge disadvantage because we were competing against athletes much less disabled than we are. With Pam being the stronger player as a class 3 athlete and myself a class 2 there are times I feel Pam would prefer I sit as close to the barrier as possible in doubles so she can hit most of the shots because in wheelchair doubles shots are not alternated. Trusting each other on the table and working as a team is something we needed to work on at this point. Pam did manage to win the Gold Medal in singles class 1-3 though. While playing up in handicap classes can lead to many frustrations on the table tennis table due to physical limitations, Pam and I used this as a learning experience to help us work on the weaknesses in our table tennis games.
On to the year 2011, a very important one for gaining ITTF world ranking points in hopes of being ranked high enough to earn a Paralympic bid. I think Pam and I spent more time in 2011 in a plane seat or playing table tennis than we did sleeping in our own beds at home. Being the dedicated athletes that we seem to be but at times questioning our sanity along the way, we traveled from country to country and practiced for countless hours chasing our dream. Pam and I attended tournaments in 2011 in Slovenia, Rotterdam, Milwaukee, Costa Rica, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina. While Pam and I medaled in some of these tournaments the medal Pam and I are proudest of was the Gold medal we received in teams at the Brazilian Open. That particular Gold Medal was won in the team competition in class 1-5 which means we beat disabled athletes in classes that are less disabled than us being that I am a class 2 athlete and Pam is a class 3. This Team Event at the Brazilian Open was combined like it was the previous year in Costa Rica where we struggled to medal at all. So the frustrations we experienced in Costa Rica to beat players in higher classes than us that pushed us to train harder on our weaknesses seemed to be paying off.
Medals were less important in 2011 because most athletes were chasing ITTF World Ranking Points. Through the year valuable World Ranking Points were gained by both Pam and I. On December 31, 2011 after traveling the globe and racking up countless frequent flyer miles Pam ended up 11th on the World Ranking List for Female Class 3 and I wound up 10th on the World Ranking List for Female Class 2. Pam was in a great position for a Paralympic bid because ITTF was selecting 18 athletes from Female Class 3. I was not in such a favorable position because there were 12 Paralympic bids being handed out in the combined class of female 1/2 which most likely was going to put me in the 12th spot which happens to be a Bipartisan Pick. So when the initial Paralympic bids came out on January 15th, 2012 Pam had earned a Paralympic bid and I was on the outside looking in as the number one alternate because the 12th spot which I was in was a Bipartisan Pick. I was battling for the last spot with athletes from France, Great Britain and Brazil. This was an awful spot to be in because now I had to wait until March 12, 2012 to see if I was the chosen one out of the three other athletes to be selected as the Bipartisan Pick.
The wait between the initial picks on January 15th and the second round of picks on March 12th seemed like an eternity. I spent countless hours talking and thinking about the position I was in with no control over what the outcome would be. Pam and I wanted our dream to become a reality so badly because at this point Pam had already been selected as a Paralympian and if I was not selected Pam would only be able to play in the Singles Event at the Paralympics and not the Team Event. On the morning of March 12th after waking up every hour of the night to check the website to see if I was selected to be the Bipartisan Pick the information was finally posted about 5:45AM. At first I did not want to open the document because the possibility existed that my Paralympic dream could end up being a nightmare. So with my husbands urging I finally got the courage to open the document and see where I stood. Words cannot express the joy and honor I felt after I saw my name in the 12th and final spot as the Bipartisan Pick to be a member of the 2012 Paralympic Team representing the United States in the sport of Table Tennis.
After waiting weeks to hear this awesome news and remembering that Pam had told me countless times that she wanted the news as soon as I found out I decided to call her at 4:45 in the morning Central Time. Pam answered in a not so pleasant tone making me feel happy that I was miles away and she could not choke me for waking her up at that ungodly hour she finally piped up and said “this damn well better be good news” and at that point what better news could I have had for her!
The road back to being a Paralympian together for Pam and I started out as a far fetched dream back in December of 2008 and ended up as reality in March of 2012. Who could have asked for a better ending after four years of chasing a dream.