Mike Dempsey

Mike Dempsey

1956-1968: When Mike Dempsey, born in Sept., 1956, is about six months old, his doctor gives him a normal virus shot, but something abnormal happens and Mike loses the use of his legs. “With me,” he says, “being in a wheelchair wasn’t a matter of adapting. You might have a period of bitterness when you have something and lose it, but this being the only thing I ever knew, I’m not bitter. I was always a pretty happy kid.” The more so after he wins a school table tennis tournament?

1969: Wheelchair athletes compete “according to function based on spinal cord injury level or comparable muscle strength.” Mike competes in the least disabled category. The more so then with him the saying, “It’s Ability, not Disability that counts.”…U.S. Wheelchair Champion John Gray brings 13-year-old Mike to the National Wheelchair Games, and, though an unseeded newcomer, he beats veteran Serge Jelenevsky for the gold medal. Astonishingly, it will be the 1st of at least 30 such golds in his Class Mike will win. For three decades, people will think of him as the National Champion.

1970-71: Mike improves by competing against able-bodied players at his Columbus, Ohio club, and by entering local tournaments. After his play in the Nov., 1970 Northern Ohio Open, Ohioan Bert Jacobs has this to say about him: 

“[Mike Dempsey] played superbly throughout the tournament…is a freshman at BishopWaterson High School in Columbus, is also a student at the Patricia Gaines Drama School there, and is a certified teacher of the Concept Therapy Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

Although he has been paralyzed from the waist down since infancy, there is nothing whatsoever powerless about his hands and heart, his spirit. He has won any number of awards in table tennis. And what with slot car racing, pool, baseball, basketball, bowling…the list goes on and on…Mike’s life away from that Drama School is itself a Shakespearian play—rich and full.” 

The richer perhaps for one morning deciding to chuck the Drama School and play more table tennis. In July of ’71, Mike will have his 1st international triumph—a gold at the Pan-Am Wheelchair Games in Kingston, Jamaica, where he’s coached by Jim Beckford. There will be five more Pan-Am Singles Championships and many more international medals for Mike with the help of other coaches, primarily Chris Lehman, Christian Lillieroos, and Rong Li.

1972: Mike’s practice on his home Stiga robot is paying off. He beats his mentor Gray for the National Championship, then wins the Doubles with him—over Jelenevsky and Ty Kaus. At the Heidelberg Paralympics, Mike scores a silver—loses to the perennial Champion, Israel’s Sam Hagai. After Mike and Miami Beach lawyer Sam Fletcher win a bronze in Doubles, the Ohio House of Representatives offers its congratulations to Mike.

1973: Back home among the Ohio able-bodied, Mike is ranked #1 among Young Adults in Ohio, for in that event at the Moundbuilders Open he defeated the Open winner Ricky Seemiller. He’s also ranked #6 among Ohio Men. At the World Championships in Stoke-Mandeville, England, Dempsey wins the 1st of his 7 World Singles titles, beats Hagai who’d been the Champion 8 straight years. Mike also takes the Doubles with Gray.

1974: Mike graduates from Gahanna Lincoln High School. There he was awarded a Varsity sport jacket “for his achievements in table tennis and basketball” and was inducted into the National Honor Society “for his scholarship, character, leadership, and service.” That March, Mike goes to Mt. Airy Lodge in Pennsylvania for a coaching clinic and to compete against the Top 15 or so able-bodied juniors in the country with an eye to making the U.S. Junior Team that will play in a tournament in Germany. Errol Resek in his Coaching Clinic Report says of Mike: “His backhand and forehand push are very good. Has to work hard on his forehand topspin and deep backhand block. Very adept at listening to advice. Willing to work very hard.” Errol also says that Mike is “very popular with the guests, press, and female employees.”

1975-82: In England in ‘75, Dempsey and Sam Fletcher win a gold in Doubles. Singles titles then elude Mike for a couple of years, but from ’77 through ’82 World wins come rolling in, as well as not just Class but Open wins in the U.S. Ty Kaus tells us how in the fall of ’82, at Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, Mike is playing Altendorfer a 2/3 match for the Open Championship. The Austrian, up 1-0, and, having just won several hard-fought points to pull to 17-all in the 2nd, points his racket defiantly at Dempsey, but Mike, is not intimidated, prevails at 19. Kaus then delights in describing what happens next: 

“Mike came alive and buried the Austrian with a succession of beautifully executed and deceptive angled pushes as he constantly flipped and twirled his MarkV/Sriver Killer combination bat, forcing error after error. Suddenly, amazingly, the score was 20-3 Dempsey. Then Dempsey uncorked three of his awesome forehand kills….He missed the first two, but the third struck paydirt, a tremendous smash that sailed far into the spectator seats.”

Mike Dempsey

1988: Mike hadn’t won a Paralympics since 1980, so he’s primed for Coach Chris Lehman’s four-day camp at Ball State University that’ll prepare the 21 athletes for the 10 days of international competition in Korea. In winning the Paralympics Open event at Seoul Mike plays two gutsy matches—his 23-21, 21-19 semi’s versus world-ranked #1 Tom Kreidel who’d beaten him in earlier Class play, and his 19-in-the-3rd final against Frenchman Guy Tisserant. End-game photos, scrapbook shots to look at for a lifetime, capture the intensity, then the relief in Mike’s face as Tisserant, beaten, hurls his racket in frustration.       

1983-87: No world or Pan-Am Championships for Mike during the mid-1980’s—though at the 1985 Vienna Sports Festival, Mike wins two golds and a bronze. And of course he continues his run of National Singles and Doubles Championships. But, meanwhile, business calls? Back in 1972, Mike had met Rainer Kuschall, a Swiss who’d invented an ultra-lightweight, ultra-maneuverable wheelchair that used weight-reducing aluminum tubing (a steel chair weighed maybe 50 pounds, an aluminum tubing one perhaps 20). After accepting an offer by Kuschall allowing him to produce these chairs in the U.S., Dempsey, by 1985, has his own wheelchair company with his own designs—though out of loyalty calling it Kuschall of America.

1989-1992: Andre Scott Anderson with wins over Dempsey begins challenging him for domestic supremacy. Abroad, at the 1990 World Championships in Holland, Kreidel beats Mike for the gold. And at the ’92 Barcelona Paralympics, Mike, on losing to Tisserant, has to be content with silver.

1993-1999. At the ’94 U.S. Olympic Festival, Mike has three seconds. And though Andre is becoming his nemesis, Mike remains, if not a kid, still pretty happy. And why shouldn’t he be? He’s had a good time at the ’99 Parapanam Games in Mexico City, and begins to get more of the accolades he deserves. Thirty-year job well done, Mike.

Mike Dempsey

2000-2009: In addition to having received earlier the National Wheelchair Athletic Association’s Male Athlete of the Year Award and induction into that body’s Hall of Fame, as well as inductions into the Ohio WAA Hall and, later, the California Hall, Mike enjoys what is perhaps his finest moment. After winning an almost uncountable number of International and National Championships, he has the honor in Sydney of being Flagbearer for the U.S. Paralympic Team.

Read Pam Ramsey's tribute to Mike in the July-August 2009 USA Table Tennis magazine.

Members of the Paralympic and Olympic Community honored Mike with the first annual - Mike Dempsey Memorial International Table Tennis Championships.  Visit the webpage for stories and images! Now is the time to get ready for the  2013 event.