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Women's wheelchair table tennis player Pamela Fontaine will compete in the Slovenian Open and Slovakian Open over the next two weeks. Photo by Richard Xue

Back in the Game

Online Exclusive posted Friday, May 8, 2015 - 5:09pm

On a whim, women's wheelchair table tennis player Pamela Fontaine returned to table tennis and is now on her way to playing the Slovenian Open and Slovakian Open

Pamela Fontaine thought she had retired from competitive wheelchair table tennis long ago.

She’d competed in it at the Paralympics in the early 1980s, winning a silver medal in the Teams event, and succeeded in the sport, but decided to focus on wheelchair basketball instead.

More than 20 years later, in 2006, she decided to play in the National Intercollegiate Table Tennis Championships at Texas Wesleyan on a whim.

Despite not having played much, the 36-year-old reached the championship but lost in the final. It changed the course of her life.


Pamela Fontaine, 50, is one of only five women's wheelchair tennis players in the United States. Photo by Richard Xue

“I don’t even know why I was expecting to win the event and when the guy beat me I was like ‘really?!’ Fontaine says. “I wanted to play and get better. I felt like I should’ve beaten him. That loss is what pushed me to trying table tennis and giving another shot at it.”

Now 50, Fontaine is one of only five professional wheelchair women’s table tennis players in the United States.

As of May 1, she’s ranked 17th in the world in Class 3 and 45th overall by the International Table Tennis Federation. She’s competing in two major tournaments the next two weeks – the Slovenian Open and the Slovakia Open – which could help determine whether she makes the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janiero.

For Women’s Class 3, you have to rank in the top 16 in the world or be one of the four region winners at the Pan-American Games to qualify for the Paralympics.

It’s a tight race for the final two spots, with France’s Marie Christine Fillou holding 16th with 1,157 points. Fontaine (1,135 points) is in 17th, with Italy’s Federica Cudia just a point behind in 18th.

She’s hoping to improve her standing at these two tournaments before August’s Pan American Games.

“It’s more stressful to be Player 17 and Player 18,” says Fontaine, a T-4 paraplegic, who was injured in a car accident when she was 16 years old in Denver in 1981.

Fontaine’s focus and drive aren’t in question. She had no trouble returning to her success on the court, needing less than a year to earn a silver medal in the women’s singles and teams events at the 2007 Parapan American Games.

She also won gold in both events at the 2009 Para Pan American Championships, took silver in the two events at the 2011 Para Pan American Games and won the gold medal at the 2012 and 2013 Mike Dempsey Memorial Table Tennis Championships. She’s also made the U.S. Para Table Tennis Paralympic Team each of the past three years.

USA Table Tennis Para Program Director Jasna Rather has watched Fontaine over the past years. Both are at Texas Wesleyan University, with Fontaine working as an adjunct professor in the Kinesiology Department. If anything, Rather thinks Fontaine may need to be less aggressive and more technique-oriented and strategic.

“She’s an amazing fighter, that’s the first thing. She has that basketball attitude she brought in because she was a basketball player before. There’s no giving up with her, she’ a true fighter,” Rather says of Fontaine. “ … Over the years, she’s learned how to be more table tennis, how to create the game that is variety with the not-so-strong shots and more technique and roll. She’s developed that over the years.”

Fontaine admits she honestly enjoys practicing more than competing because of what you can learn about the sport. She loves trying to push herself to a higher level.

“I like that time because it’s challenging. For me as an athlete, that’s what I like the most about table tennis,” Fontaine says. “You’ve gotta be quick, have really good hand-eye coordination, (be) fast moving, not like moving from point a to point b, but have hand quickness and hand speed and arm speed. You have to be fast so you can cover forehands, backhands, (and) short, long, (and) wide balls. That’s what intrigues me the most.”

Fontaine hopes to make it out of her pool play group and at least reach the semifinals if not the championship. And she’s honestly candid about herself, too.

“I’m old. But I love sports,” Fontaine says. “I’m a competitor.”

 

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