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Carlo WolffMythbuster: Carlo Wolff

Writer and athlete

Date of interview: March 2012

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Interviewed in the book-strewn dining room of his South Euclid home, Carlo Wolff — far better-known for his thoughtful book and music reviews and intriguing travel articles than his prowess with a ball and paddle — shared insights, info and tips on what it takes to be a competitively ranked table tennis player.

mythbusters Senior Games Cleveland

When and where were you born, and where are you in the sibling line-up?

I was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1943, but I only lived there for two months, so I didn't really know Texas until I went back there in the late 1980s. And I'm an only child.

Where did you grow up, and what brought you to Cleveland?

I grew up, basically, in Columbus. My father [Kurt H. Wolff] was a professor of sociology, and he was hired by Ohio State University and we moved to Columbus when I was two. I lived in Columbus from 1945 to 1959 [when Dr. Wolff was "hired northward" to teach at Brandeis University near Boston].

I came to Cleveland [in 1986] because my then-wife (reporter Debbi Snook) got a job at The Plain Dealer. It wasn't that I was coat-tailing on my wife's job. We'd both been working full-time in Albany [New York], and when I came here, I was doing a lot of Rock and Roll writing. I figured I'd get a full-time job here because this was a much bigger market for Rock and Roll, and a rich resource for it, too, at that time.

Growing up, what you were good at in school...and not so good at?

I was awful in the sciences, but pretty gifted in languages, so I always liked English classes and foreign languages, and I speak a couple now. [Laughs] I always get along pretty well when I'm traveling in Europe.

Oh, and I grew up bilingual: my other language is German.

Today, according to the US Table Tennis Association, you're a nationally ranked table tennis player. How and when did you first get interested in table tennis?

I used to go to University School in Columbus. It was an adjunct school of Ohio State University, right on the campus, and it was geared toward the kids of the staff and professors. It's long gone.

After school each day, I'd either go to my father's office on campus or I'd hang out at the student union if he was still teaching. And I'd play with guys there. I started around age 9, and, since this was the early 1950s, and since it was right after the Korean War, there were a lot of Korean students [at OSU] and I'd play with them. I got really good.

You got interested in table tennis when you were 9. Almost 60 years later you are still playing, so what's kept you interested?

Playing keeps me relatively sharp and trim. But that's not the only thing. There's self-regard, too. I don't want to just sit around. If I'm going to sit, I want to sit after a good game, after I'm tired.

It keeps you trim? How does it do that?

I'm moving around, a lot, when I'm playing, and that's very good exercise. It keeps me fairly agile and nimble. I'm not building muscle mass and I don't sweat a lot, but there's a lot of aerobic activity.

You're a writer, and you did a really interesting piece rhapsodic, almost for Ohio Authority, the on-line magazine, about your ping-pong paddles. It got me thinking: What other equipment both physical and mental do you need to play competitive table tennis?

You need to wear comfortable clothing that lets you move. And you need to wear good shoes. Most people wear running shoes or walking shoes. I have a pair of ASICS™ that have gel bottoms and mesh tops: that gives me buoyancy and allows my feet to give and breathe. I have supports in the shoes, too, but that varies by the player.

You need good hand-eye coordination, and you have to have good footwork, too. There are coaches around here that specialize in certain aspects of that. One, Valeriy Elnatanov at the Shaker Heights Club, used to coach for the Soviet team. He's very good, and he's training a whole generation of kids from all over Cleveland to "kill" their opponents. And they do.

That's the physical equipment for playing. What's the mental "equipment" you need to play well?

You need an even temper. A lot of people lose games because they get mad...You know, this game isn't just about the strokes, it's about the emotions, too.

And you need an ability to second guess your opponent and their strategy which I'm not very good at and you need to be able to form strategy of your own. That gets harder as you get older because you are always defaulting to what you know.

I've been playing the same way for 40 or 50 years and it's very hard for me to change now, even though I need to.

What have you learned playing table tennis that has carried over into your personal life and your professional career as a writer? And vice versa?

That's a tough question. Part of the answer has to do with a social aspect that comes with table tennis. There's a whole culture that surrounds the game and I'm friends with people that I've met all over the world through table tennis.

In competitions you are playing as an individual and [as part of] a team. Teams become bonding opportunities. There's one guy I'm on a lot of teams with, and we are deep friends, though we don't really socialize outside of table tennis. But we are very tight in that, and that's a really special friendship.

But it's hard to say what carries over from table tennis into the rest of what I do. Professionally, in my writing, I try to be nimble and quick.

You'll be competing, in table tennis, in the 2012 Ohio Senior Olympics and the 2013 Summer National Senior Games, both of which will be held in Cleveland. What are you doing right now to prepare for the games?

Right now I'm getting registered for the state games, both solo and with my friend, as a team. And I'm playing a lot. Last Weekend there was a tournament at my table tennis club in Bratenahl, and I played seven matches that went three to five games each, which means that I probably played 30 games that day. I came home wiped out.

And I'm thinking about taking lessons probably from the coach at the Shaker Heights club.

And I'm practicing certain things and moves. I don't have a table here at the house, which is one reason I play at the club at least two or three times a week. And every session is three to three-and-a-half hours.

What role do you think attitude plays in playing successfully?

A big one. It's your confidence. It's your poise and assurance. And it's always the thing that keeps you from becoming condescending or getting angry.

It's very easy to become angry when you are playing, especially when you are losing. But it's very important not to. If you don't fall into that, you maintain the kind of equilibrium that allows you to play more evenly and more assuredly.

With regard to your playing, how do you define "success"?

Success is when I feel I'm in the "zone." Being in the "zone" doesn't just equate to winning, it equates to that feeling of being outside yourself, of watching yourself look good and execute really tough shots with grace and surprise and finesse. And the ironic thing is that you can't get there into the "zone" by force. There's nothing you can do to make it happen, it's something you unconsciously built up to.

I was there in the "zone" Monday night at the end of the evening. I'd played this much younger guy who's gotten much better very recently. And it wasn't just me. We both really enjoyed that match.

You are lean and fit, in great physical shape. Besides table tennis workouts, what do you do to stay physically and mentally fit?

I do some stretches every morning, and the table tennis, and that's basically it.

I eat three meals a day and I make sure that I have a straight Coke, not diet, every day with lunch but there's nothing special about what I eat, though I don't eat a lot of red meat. [Laughs] And, when I'm out, I eat a lot of Subway sandwiches especially tuna with Pepper Jack cheese. And I really like sushi. It's probably the only food that I identifiably crave.

I drink good liquor and good wine, too. Not a lot, but discerningly.

I don't restrict things. My choices are wide open. As long as the food is good, it's good. And I'm the same way with music. As long as it's good, it's good.

We've covered a lot of ground in this interview. What did I not ask you that I should have?

We talked about table tennis because that's what your focus was. It is an integral part of my life, but I'm doing a lot more than that these days.

When I retired from Penton [he was features editor for Lodging Hospitality Magazine ] almost 4 years ago I didn't retire from writing. I'm still doing a lot of writing about hotels and travel for the magazine, online sites and, occasionally for the Plain Dealer. And I do book reviews for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Christian Science Monitor and sometimes the Chicago Sun Times. And for the last 15 months I've been working on a book about Cleveland's soul music, which I'm calling Invisible Soul. It's about the soul music that didn't make it out of the ghetto. I've done about 50 interviews and if I had my druthers, I'd be working on it full time.

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