World Ping-Pong Champs Are Still Winners at 89, Even 100

PHOTO: Les DArcy is 89, one of eight competitors vying to win at the 2012 World Table Tennis Champions in China.PlayCourtesy of Cinedigm / Docurama
WATCH Ping Pong World Championships

Les D'Arcy is a fitness maniac with the buff muscles and flexibility to show for it. He's a "legend" in Britain, a seven-time world champion featured in the new film "Ping Pong."

And, by the way, he's 89.

D'Arcy is one of eight ruthless competitors vying to win at the 2012 World Table Over 80 Tennis Championships in Inner Mongolia, testing their training, resolve and agility before nearly 2,000 spectators.

The film, directed by brothers Hugh and Anson Hartford, opens in 15 cities this weekend after premiering in Los Angeles and New York earlier this week. Its release is part of Cinedigm's new Docurama series, bringing seven award-winning documentary films in seven weeks, from April 22 through June 16.

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Directed by British brothers Hugh and Anson Hartford, the film paints intimate portraits of the competitors, using the Ping-Pong table as a backdrop for an exploration of aging and death.

"We knew that we could have a sports film but, ultimately, it was just secondary to where the narrative would take us," said Anson Hartford, 35. "We were interested in the experience of growing old and what it was like. ... That's what holds the film together.

"We admired [the characters] and their approach to life and the fact that they were fully engaged in it."

D'Arcy, a former RAF pilot, overcame a sickly childhood, dropped out of school at 14 and has devoted his life to weight training and Ping-Pong.

He's also a poet and opens the film with his mantra, a stanza from writer Napoleon Hill: "Life's battles don't always go to the stronger or faster man, but sooner or later the man who wins is the one who thinks he can."

Hugh Hartford, 33, acknowledged that poem is "very much the heart of the film -- the power of the mind."

But D'Arcy's fellow British competitor, Terry Donlon, 81, is not so healthy. He has fought a lung collapse, heart disease and prostate cancer.

"They say you can't have sex," he says in the film about his Ping-Pong prowess and dream to be world champion. "Alright, but I will prove them wrong again."

In the match point round, however, Donlon gasps for air, grabbing his lung inhaler and struggling to maintain his agility.

"I want to play as long as I can," he says. "I don't want to sit down. I don't want to die."

By the film's end, his cancer has returned, this time in his bone and doctors give him a death sentence, but one that takes a surprising twist.

The Hartford brothers were inspired to make the film after seeing a photograph of Ping-Pong player Dorothy Delow, who was 97 at the time and playing in the world finals in Rio de Janeiro.

"She was wearing her Australian sports kit and it struck me there must be others," said Hugh Hartford. "There's a story to it."

She was featured in a minor role as a 100-year-old in the documentary, which took the Hartford brothers three years to film. In all, they found eight compelling characters from five countries.

Ursula Bihl, an 89-year-old German and the doubles reigning champion, has a heart problem.

"Walking 14 steps is difficult for me," she says in the film. "A nightmare for me would be to live paralyzed. ... I would like to die at the tennis table -- but not that soon."

Inge Hermann, also German and 89, went to live in a senior home in 1997 after her husband of 40 years died of cancer.

"Suddenly, the food didn't taste good anymore when there is not one to eat it with," she says in the film.

Hermann's health had begun to fail after a series of strokes and falls

But she discovered "there are 100 nerves in our brain that are not used," and took up Ping-Pong. At first, it was hard for her to even pick up the balls, but she eventually got better -- good enough to go to China for the championships.

The Mongolian champion, 80-year-old Hulung SunYong Qing, attributes his success to ginseng, rice wine and vitamin E. Surprisingly, he still smokes.

"We argue about his smoking, but he never listens," says his wife in the film. "He says he can't control it. ... But he still has a lot of energy."

Lisa Modlich and her husband Joachim in Houston.

One of the fiercest players is Lisa Modlich, who was born in Austria but came to the United States as a war bride in 1947. Competitive to the core, she speaks six languages, including Chinese.

"Whatever it is, I try to be good at it," the confident Houston retiree told "When I was a little girl, my mother used to say, 'You're not pretty so you better be smart.' But I don't think my looks are so bad."

With a sturdy build and a shock of white hair piled atop her head, Modlich called her second husband, "my Adonis. He was was 24 and I was 45."

At 88, she, too, was vying for gold. Modlich only took up Ping-Pong in her 70s after she found it "too hot" to move around the tennis court and moved her sport indoors. She was good, so she hired a coach and starting winning competitions -- 135 gold medals in all.

"Your coordination doesn't change," she said of aging. "The muscles get weaker and you play a little less fast, don't move fast enough. I can tell the difference when I play young people."

But she scoffs at her competition, Australian centenarian DeLow.

"Everyone made a big fuss about it, but she didn't know how to play," said Modlich. "No one was there to contest her, so she got away with it."

What keeps Modlich young?

"Genetics," she snapped.

And staying active.

"Americans should move instead of watching television," she said. "Get off the couch."

In the film, just before her match-point round, she says, "I am not going to cry over second, but tomorrow, I'd like to get first."

Only one of these colorful octogenarians goes home a world champion, but the point of the film is not about Ping-Pong or winning.

"We started off making a film about old people and were interested in the end of their lives," said director Hugh Hartford. "A lot of the conversations we had with these characters were about death, but I think the film taught us about life and what we do with it and living."

The film poignantly ends with Terry Donlon, home from the hospital, flexing his muscles once again: "This is where the mind takes over."