Ira Walton defies the aging process nearly every day of his life, with a simple flick of the wrist.
At 94 years young, Walton doesn’t spend his retirement days sitting in a recliner watching television, but rather chasing around a little white ball. Not that dimpled ball that bounces down a fairway, either. Walton plays table tennis at least five days a week – and sometimes six – usually for several hours at a time.
Honestly, he may be my favorite athlete in Waco, simply because he’s such an inspirational example of the notion of stick-to-itiveness.
Age ain’t nothing but a number, right? So they say. Nevertheless, as we get older, that number tends to feel a little more weighty.
In Walton’s case, 94 is a rather hefty digit. And so are these:
- 3 – the number of major military conflicts in which Walton served, those being World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
- 28 – that’s how many years that Walton has competed in the Golden Age Games, an Olympic-style sports festival for retired military veterans. In 28 different cities around the United States, no less.
- 85 – Walton’s personal medal count.
Walton has gold medals older than probably 99 percent of the college students in Waco. And, trust me, if any of those young buck students ever ventured over to the Waco Table Tennis Club at The Center on Columbus Avenue, Walton would likely send the ball zipping past the vast majority of their earbuds.
Yeah, but it’s table tennis, sneer the skeptics, spitting the word out as if it’s a broccoli smoothie. Pooh-pooh all you want, you sayers of nay, but are you aware that table tennis ranks as the No. 2 sport in the world in terms of total participants, right behind soccer?
Walton and his buddies don’t lob and tap the ball back and forth like the youth group teens in the church rec room. If you line up across the table from these guys, you’re going to sweat.
I sure did. Longtime table tennis enthusiast Jimmy Dorrell, the director of Mission Waco, made short work of me on Tuesday as I ventured over to interview Walton. And that was while Dorrell was being his usual magnanimous self, offering me some tips for better returns and backspin.
You’d surmise that they don’t come any friendlier than Dorrell, but Walton is right there in Jimmy’s class. Walton recently returned from his 28th Golden Age Games with his usual metal detector-alerting haul of hardware – two gold medals, one in table tennis and the other in air rifle, along with a silver medal in shuffleboard and another silver in horseshoes.
Despite such successes, Walton craves the camaraderie of the event as much as the competition.
“It’s a reunion, really, each year going back and seeing old friends,” he said.
These are people who fought and bled for our country. They share a bond, a kinship, built around shared labor.
“That’s one of the major things going to the Games,” Walton said. “When you’re relaxing after the competition, lunch time, dinner time, you can sit around the table and converse. Everybody has some of the same experiences.”
Walton first tried his hand at table tennis as a student at Waco’s Paul Quinn College in 1941. But by that point he’d already made a name for himself with a bigger racket, winning Prairie View Interscholastic League state championships in tennis doubles and singles as a high school student in 1939. (Black athletes competed in the PVIL back then, as the UIL didn’t integrate until 1967.)
Walton said he continued to play tennis regularly through his time in the military. He retired from the Army in 1974, but then spent another 14 years working in the Veterans Affairs office in Waco.
Eventually, he retired his tennis racket and focused his energy more on the table tennis variety. He hooked up with the Waco Table Tennis Club in its infancy, playing matches against the club’s founder and his friend Grady Gordon five days a week.
“We played five days a week, four matches a day, and he’d win every match,” Walton said of Gordon, who died in 2006. “I played him for probably 40 years, and I won one complete match in 40 years. He was a really, really terrific player.”
Walton is no slouch himself. He can hold his own – and defeat – players decades his junior. At the Golden Age Games, however, he competes against participants in his own unique age bracket. He was actually the second-oldest competitor in the 90-and-up division, as one gentleman clocked in at age 98. (He didn’t play table tennis.)
This year’s event took Walton to Biloxi, Miss., the city in which he went through basic training some 74 years ago.
“It was my first time back,” Walton said. “It’s changed a bit.”
What hasn’t changed is Walton’s competitive zeal, nor his zest for life and friendship. He’s already looking forward to next year’s Golden Age Games in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
And he intends to keep his swing sharp at the table tennis club, even if it means paddling some middle-aged youngster’s hind quarters.
“Table tennis keeps you active, and it’s also mental. There are a lot of strategies in the game,” Walton said. “Being active and thinking in the game, it helps you. It keeps me going, that’s for sure.”
Go and do your thing, Ira. Keep those golden years golden.