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The Sun

Table tennis champ still bouncing around

The Sun
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 02:39 PM

His name has bounced around table tennis clubs, tournaments and championship series since the 1920s.

And at 104 years old, John Donnelly still keeps a hand in the game.

Although Donnelly is not able to play with the skill and dexterity that once defined him, he's not quite ready to put the paddle away for good yet.

On Feb. 7, 2007, the Sun City Center Table Tennis Club officially became "The John Donnelly Table Tennis Club of Sun City Center," honoring the club's founder and one of the most skilled players to have ever joined.

In the Freedom Plaza resident's home, dozens of medals from local, state, national and international competitions hang from a closet doorknob in his bedroom. Trophies line the walls and a folder contains more than 15 newspaper and magazine articles about Donnelly's skills.

During a recent table tennis practice in Freedom Plaza, Donnelly volleyed a few rounds with Bruce Grant, Freedom Towers' fitness and balance instructor. After a short game, Donnelly took time to reflect on his playing career and what's kept him in the sport for so long.

"I haven't played competitively in about two years now; I've gotten dizzy and fell a couple of times," he said. "But I'm really proud of all the medals and senior game titles I've won."

Donnelly first took to table tennis (not "ping pong," he said) at the YMCA in 1924 as a youth growing up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He said he had a knack for it and won small tournaments while in college at the University of Iowa, where he earned his degree in commerce in 1931.

After graduation, Donnelly became a stock broker and quit playing for nearly 30 years. In 1980, he moved to Sun City Center and founded the table tennis club, giving guidance, lessons and tips to hundreds of members over the years.

Among the awards and recognition Donnelly has earned over his playing career, he said he's most proud of the National Senior Games Championship and a gold medal he got in the Florida Senior Games State Championships. He has also won nine national tournaments over his career. In June 2007, he competed in the nationals in Louisville, Ky., in the 100- to 105-year-old age group.

Donnelly – who at 95 married his wife Marian – said another high point of his playing career was an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno May 8, 2006. He even got to play the talk show host, who he said, "got in a few good shots."

Carlos Patriarca, table tennis club president, said although it's hard for Donnelly to play anymore, he can tell the man once had expert skills. He said Donnelly offers tips and advice to some of the club's 49 current members when he can.

"When he does play, you can see at one time, he was really good," said Patriarca, 72, a two-time winner at the Florida Orange Blossom Table Tennis Series in Lakeland. "I joined the club because of him; I had read about his skills in the papers."

Although he can't play tournaments anymore, Donnelly still attends club meetings and has his paddle nearby.

"I still play some, I sure do," he said. "I don't think I'll play competitively again; I'll be 105 in September, but I'm proud of my medals."

Donnelly is also involved with the Sun City Center Rotary Club and Samaritan Services.


pcatala@mediageneral.com (813) 731-1970
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