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Eighty-year-old table tennis queen took Wales to the top - Betty enjoys her slice of life.
Happy birthday Betty Gray! Swansea's queen of table tennis, 80 on 20th August 2000, is still the best in the world.
During the last year she has won gold in the European and world singles championships for her age group and bronze in the doubles - no mean feat for a woman with arthritis in her hands and four steel pins in an ankle. In fact Betty injured herself again at the world championships in Vancouver. "I split my knuckles open in practice." said battling Betty “I treated the injury myself and it seemed all right. But during the finals I split it open again, unlike other sports, you can't stop the game, walk away from it or generally get attention. So I just carried on. It didn't bother me and I was particularly anxious to try to win because there were only two of us there from Wales, but there was blood everywhere - on the table, on the floor and in the end, the umpire stepped in. Someone mopped me up and put a plaster over the gash and I just carried on and won." The wound took rather longer to heal. "Six weeks," said a rueful Betty. "I must be slipping."
Betty started playing table tennis in 1939. Nearly all the young men had gone off to the war and sport provided an alternative social life. The Young Conservatives' Club, in Walter Road, had a table and it was there, behind windows blacked out with wooden shutters, that Betty discovered she was a ping-pong wizard. "The boys use to ask me to play and very soon I was beating them," she said. “But I'll never forget the noise of the ball banging against the wooden shutters." A civil service switchboard and telex operator attached to the US Army on Swansea docks during the war, Betty moved to the Post Office after 1945 and became a star player in their mixed team. Then she was picked for Wales and for more than 50 years she's been a living legend in table tennis, taking honours all over the world raising the profile of the game and acting as official ambassador for both Swansea and Wales.
First Lady - Table Tennis champion Betty Gray on the rostrum after winning gold for her age group in Vancouver
During her 18 years in the Welsh team, a time when Chinese and Japanese players dominated the game, the principality's ranking rose to fourth in Europe and sixth in the world. Welsh champion for more than 10 years, Betty won innumerable medals, trophies, cake-stands and more then 250 cups. "After that, I stopped counting," she smiled, "They're really beautiful, but they're hell to clean," For 25 years on the trot she won the Swansea and District championship cup. "In the end they just gave me the cup." Betty always claims she was the game's most unorthodox player. "If there was a wrong way to do something, I did it - but right." she said. “And I could never come off the table to talk to the coach because I knew I would lose my concentration. I used to say, “Do you want me to come off the table or do you want me to win'" Most of the time they left me alone." Few people know that table tennis's gain was lawn tennis's loss. "I played both games as a young woman, but had to choose between them.” said Betty. "Trust me to choose the wrong one. There's no money in table tennis!”
She's only half joking, table tennis in Wales has always been a Cinderella sport. Equipment is expensive - the best bats cost anything up to £I00 each - and Welsh representatives have a long history of kitting themselves out and paying at least part of their travelling expenses.
"On the other hand, I've been all round the world, seen some fantastic places. met some wonderful people and been lucky enough to have had great friends," said Betty. And sport has kept her fit. Despite serious injuries, such as a broken ankle and an undetected dislocated shoulder which caused her agony for more than three years, she's never stopped playing for more than a few weeks. Neither has she ever let her youngsters down. They’re the fans who flock to the Swansea youth clubs, play schemes and training development sessions she has helped to run for more than 30 years. "We have some very good youngsters coming on," she said proudly "We even have some who are just five years old. You wait until they're a bit older,"
Like most veterans who want to repay their chosen sport, Betty had become more involved in administration. She's president of the Table Tennis Association of Wales, of Swansea Table Tennis League and of the new Cymru Veterans' Association.
Last year she was also honoured as the city's sports personality of the year. Next year she's planning trips to Denmark and Switzerland to defend her European and world titles. "When you decide to carry on playing past your peak, you have to accept that you're going to lose," said Betty. "I’ve never minded that. It's the playing and the trying that's important. I don't think I’ll ever stop playing, it has been my life."
Betty Gray in the 1950’s with a small selection of her trophies
Betty Gray with fellow Welsh Star of the 1950’s Shirley Jones