(PHOTO #1) Hungarian refugees Paul and Olga Soltesz are shown here in 1957 with their Budapest-born three-year-old daughter Olga. They’ve resettled in Melbourne, FL, and at the moment are heading off to town. No, they’re not going to any local table tennis club—though Paul (PHOTO #2) had been an enthusiastic player in Hungary. They’re off to buy little Olga “a sand bucket and shovel.”
The father may be dreaming of shared sand castles with his daughter, but it’s Olga whom we’re going to follow, as in a fairy-tale, tonight. At a time when the USTTA was giving free memberships to every tournament-entry Junior Under 15 (PHOTO #3), Olga became the Florida Girls Champ, then, quickly (PHOTO #4), the Florida Women’s Champ.
In 1969, at the U.S. Open in San Francisco, 15-year-old Olga, having attended clinics at Grand Rapids and Columbus, Ohio taught by the great Japanese player/coach Ichiro Ogimura, won her first National title (PHOTO #5)—the Women’s Class A. Continuing to encourage her (PHOTO #6) on the home front was Harry “H” Blair whom she’d succeed as Orlando Club Director.
One of Olga’s favorite playing sites was the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament. Of course getting to Toronto costs money. So, says Olga with an engaging smile, “Back home I went downtown and in two days I raised $200. I took along my scrapbook and a Topics (PHOTO #7)) with my picture in it. Just walked into places, told them I was on the U.S. Team. It’s really surprising how you can get money. Like at the First Federal Bank I just walked in—and they sent me to see the President. He practically didn’t even look at me. ‘Give her fifty,’ he said. He was real busy.” Know how Olga will thank her sponsors? She’ll invite a reporter to dinner, give him the story, and make sure the sponsor is thanked publicly.
At both the 1970 CNE and the ’72 Eastern’s (PHOTO #8), Olga (right), with a very effective sidespin serve and a blasting follow, forced Violetta Nesukaitis, then in the midst of her 10-year reign as Canadian National Champion, into the fifth.
1971 was a very big year for Olga. At the March Atlanta National’s, Olga beat Angelita Rosal in the semi’s and Judy Bochenski in the final to win the U.S. Girls U-17 and so reinforce her selection with Judy as a U.S. Team member to the ‘71 Nagoya World’s. (PHOTO #9) See the two of them as smiling flower girls in Japan. And here’s Olga, as in a spell, enchanted with her date for the evening (PHOTO #10)—uh-huh, that’s the 1969 World Champion Shigeo Ito (“Dinner was Japanese style,” said Olga. “Shoes off. A little room to ourselves. A plate of raw meet, cooked on a little grill. Really authentic, you know?”)
Then—fantasy becomes reality—the surprise invitation into the unknown—China!
And the first “snack” (PHOTO #11)—at the Canton Customs House—goose, soy bean noodles, 100-year-old eggs, a kind of spinach cabbage, and then shark’s stomach soup. “Do they have cokes and hamburgers in China?” Olga asked. (PHOTO #12) Maybe?
(PHOTO #13) “Defeat the U.S. aggressors and all their running dogs”—“Unreal” was what Olga thought when she saw some of the signs facing her in China. But she adapted. (PHOTO #14) Indeed, despite that pro-North Korean poster trained on her, she’s fearless, amused. Of course that’s because the Chinese players themselves were friendly on and off the court. Here (PHOTO #15) U.S. and Chinese players limber up in a circle of unity. And here (PHOTO #16) Olga and friend are being playful over contrasting hair styles. But, oh, that restroom our women were directed to at the 2800-student university in Peking. “One of those dungeons in ‘Ben Hur,’ said Olga , “where people had leprosy.” The common complaint? (PHOTO #17) No toilets you could sit down on, no toilet paper, and the stink made you sick
But Olga really liked touring the buildings and grounds of the Emperor’s Summer Palace. “Old China” she romantically called it. Then, after the Team Meeting with Premier Chou En-Lai in the “New China” Palace of the Great Hall of the People, it was on to the Shanghai Commune and then, dreamily, home. Olga had been indebted to her Orlando Boone High School principal and her classmates, for they’d raised $800 for her trip. Each morning an announcement had come over the loudspeaker: “We’ve got enough money now to put Olga over Nevada…Now she’s over L.A…..Now we’ve got her half-way back from Japan.” On her first day back at school, in her first-period course, “Americanism vs. Communism,” she sat, appreciatively, eating a freshly baked piece of red, white, and blue cake made especially for her by one of her classmates.
Now another test of her imagination. Could she believe that in 1972 the Chinese would tour the U.S. and Olga and other members of the U.S. Team would be in the Rose Garden with President Nixon—and (PHOTO #18) in such matching outfits: orange turtlenecks and drip-dry, won’t wrinkle, all-white pantsuits. As for the President himself, well, he wasn’t like (PHOTO #19) his daughter Tricia who’d warmly greeted Olga at one of the Tour matches. After graciously receiving the Chinese, he was about to walk right past the U.S. players…until Olga spoke up, “Don’t you want to meet the Team that went to China?” “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t know you were here.”
Perhaps Olga would be having dinner with a winning Chinese? Someone gauchely asked 22-year-old Liang Ko-liang, “Would you like to have a date with Olga?” (PHOTO #20) Interpreter consulted. A conversation back and forth with Liang, while Miss Soltesz is demurely silent.…”Yes,” comes back the answer, “we met before, in Japan, in Nagoya at the World Championships.”
O.K. Incomparable lifetime experience with the Chinese is over. Back now to the real world of North American circuit play. Er, how real? Houshang Bozorgzadeh, former Iranian World Team member turned U.S. Captain/Coach, told Olga how coaches he’d known had urged their win-hungry players to keep throwing peanuts or little pieces of candy up in the air. The idea was for the player to catch them/mouth them coming down—improve hand/eye coordination. (PHOTO # 21) Looks like Olga was game, would give it a try…with popcorn.
Of more help surely was her return to Japan to be coached by Ogimura. There he had her do both mental and physical exercises. He also confided to her how he used to be afraid to carry his paddle on the streets because he thought people would make fun of him. “You must overcome yourself,” he told Olga, “before you can overcome your opponents.” Olga dutifully ran, jumped rope, said, “No other top U.S. woman trains. I ought to have a big advantage.” On returning to the States to play in the ’72 Eastern’s, she won the Mixed with John Tannehill, and (PHOTO #22) reached the final of the Women’s Doubles (left) with Barbara Kaminsky before losing to the Nesukaitis sisters. Her game further improved (PHOTO #23) when Ogimura employee Michiko Yamanaka befriended her, and came to her Florida home for six weeks to coach her.
Olga scored a tenacious 5-game win at Charlie Disney’s 1972 $8,000 Minnesota Classic—over (PHOTO #24) Angelita Rosal (right) in the semi’s and three-time U.S. Champion Patty Martinez in the final, holding strong after losing the 4th at deuce. At the CNE (PHOTO #25) she and Mitch Sealtiel (right) reached the final of the Mixed with a deuce-in-the-4th semi’s win over Boggan/Bochenski. (Bet she and Mitch didn’t win this point.)
Ogi had warned Olga that she still needed time to develop—and at the 1972 U.S. World Team Trials, she was beaten by Sue Hildebrandt in a Playoff for a spot on the U.S. Team to Sarajevo. But she rebounded, and in another all-deciding match—for a place on the U.S. Team to the 1975 World’s (PHOTO #26)—Olga (right) prevailed over Alice Green while Patty Martinez watched to see which of these two girls would be her teammate. Later in Calcutta she would defeat Leanne Morrow, the Australian Champion.
Then—another huge disappointment. In the round robin matches that would decide the 1977 U.S. Team to the Birmingham World’s, though Olga beat Judy head-to-head, a different sort of tie-breaker between the two decided the last spot for the Team—and as their match score was the same, they were judged by games won and lost. Judy’s 13-11 record was slightly better than Olga’s 14-12.
With the coming of the foreign players to our U.S. Opens, and the expatriate South Koreans Insook Bhushan and He-ja Lee eligible to play in our Closeds and U.S. Team Tryouts, working-girl Olga had already garnered what major successes she could. At the ‘76, ‘77, and ‘78 Closed she lost to Insook who’d go on to win the U.S. Championship an unprecedented 11 times. And though at the ’78 U.S. Open, Olga played brilliantly in losing 25-23 in the fifth to the Korean International Kim He Kyung, she knew she’d have to content herself with being now more the competitive amateur than a U.S. Top Five professional.
However, she did continue to compete—and (PHOTO #27) with a success most players would cherish. In 1980, she won the State Bank of Miami Open over Florida arrivals, Malaysia’s Linda Chong and Thailand’s Judy Tun. In 1982 at the National Sport (later Olympic) Festival, she defeated U.S. Intercollegiate Champion Genevieve Hayes to help her South Team win the gold; and with Jerry Thrasher came runner-up in the Mixed. At the ’86 Festival she took the Women’s Doubles with Jasmine Wang, had her third Silver in the Mixed, and picked up a bronze in the Team’s. In 1982, she was Women’s Singles runner-up at the CNE. In ‘83, representing the U.S. at an Invitational in Cuba, she and Judy Tun were finalists in Women’s Doubles. And in 1984, in honor of Florida pioneer organizer Fred Fuhrman (PHOTO #28) she accepted from Fred’s widow and son her Fuhrman Memorial Women’s Championship trophy. By now, too, she was well into no-nonsense directing Florida tournaments, and would be doing that, on into the new millennium.
In 1995, to cap her career, she was inducted into the Florida Hall of Fame. Cap? Did I say cap her career? I misspoke. As Olga must know from the many books she reads, fairy-tales have twists, turns, sometimes Cinderella endings. She’d long regretted that when she took that 1971 trip to China she was an inexperienced 17-year-old and most of what had happened was blurred in her memory. But then—a faerie miracle—35 years later, there was another fabulous “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” trip to China for Olga, and this one was not blurred but burned into her memory. She, (PHOTO #29) along with others (Olga’s 2nd from right) had been given another chance. True, they don’t look as if they’re ready for any fashion show. But then, incredibly, (PHOTO #30) the picture changes, and there, striding so handsomely, so chic, so poised, down the middle-aged runway of life is… Do we recognize her?...Ladies and Gentleman, Olga Soltesz.