Tara Profitt of Newington returns a shot from her coach, Roman Tinyszin of East Hartford. (Photo by Jack Sheedy)
WEST HARTFORD – From a practice room in a community center came the hollow KER-PLOCK! KER-PLOCK! of a ping pong ball striking first a racket, then the table, over and over again. A man’s voice was saying, "Don’t give up on those!"
A woman’s voice said, "I was ready for that one!"
A few KER-PLOCKs later, he said, "I faded you! With backspin and you try hitting it, where does it go?"
"Into the net," the woman admitted.
A visitor entering the room might expect to see the man and woman standing and leaning over the table as the white ball flashes back and forth between them. Instead, both were sitting – the coach in a folding chair with his knees together, the woman in a wheelchair, the racket strapped to her wrist.
"When she plays internationally, she plays other people who are in wheelchairs," said coach Roman Tinyszin of East Hartford, an international umpire and national referee for table tennis. "I can get a lot more power standing than I can sitting."
"It levels the playing field when he sits," said the woman. She is Tara Profitt of Newington, and she’s been using a wheelchair since 1979, when she hit her head on the bottom of a swimming pool at age 13, breaking her neck.
"I never thought I’d be an athlete again after the accident," Mrs. Profitt said. But five years later, in 1984, she was in Stoke Mandeville, England, competing in Paralympic Table Tennis on the United States Olympic Team. She retired from the sport after that, married Matt Profitt in 1987 and raised their son, Andre, who just graduated from high school in June.
Now she’s back. And later this month, just 28 years after her first Paralympics, she will head for London for the 2012 Paralympics and a chance to bring home the gold.
The road to both the 1984 and 2012 Paralympics began in 1983, when Pam Fontaine, a fellow student at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, who was also disabled, encouraged her to try table tennis.
Mrs. Profitt recalled meeting Mrs. Fontaine. "She said, ‘Do you want to play?’ ‘Play, are you kidding me? How am I going to play?’ She said, ‘Oh yeah, you could play.’ She grabbed an Ace bandage to wrap my hand to the paddle, and I played, and in seven months I was in the Paralympics."
In fact, they both were. Mrs. Fontaine, an Ohio native now living in Texas, took home a silver medal in the 1984 teams competition. Then the two women came home, raised families and lost contact with each other – until four years ago.
On a speakerphone at the community center where Mrs. Profitt and Mr. Tinyszin were training, Mrs. Fontaine said she learned in 2008 that Mrs. Profitt was trying to reach her. She phoned Mrs. Profitt immediately.
"It was kind of strange," Mrs. Fontaine recalled. "It was like we’d been talking every day, all these years. She was like the sister that I never had."
Mrs. Profitt was itching to get back to table tennis, and Mrs. Fontaine had already been back competing for a couple of years, so they joined forces. In 2009, both took part in the ParaPan American Games in Margarita, Venezuela, where Mrs. Profitt took home gold and Mrs. Fontaine won silver. In 2011, both won silver medals at the ParaPan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Mr. Tinyszin has been playing table tennis for 43 years and coaches people at a club he co-manages in Shelton. "We were having a tournament one particular weekend, and Tara showed up," he recalled. "She comes over and says, ‘I need a coach.’ I kind of looked at her and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ve never coached a disabled athlete, ever. I’ve always coached able-bodied athletes. The strategies are totally different. As an able-bodied, you can move to hit a shot. In disabled, in a wheelchair, you can’t.’"
But he did have experience with disabled players, having been an umpire in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, Greece, and the 2006 International Paralympics World Table Tennis Championships in Montreux, Switzerland. And Mrs. Profitt was determined to get the best coach she could find.
"I’ve learned a lot from him," she said.
"She’s learned strategies," he said.
One strategy disabled players use is the shovel shot, her coach said. The ball is hit from underneath, putting backspin on it. "The ball travels high, bounces here [just over the net], and then bounces back. There’s no way, even if they see the shot coming and they can wheel around in their chair, that they can reach it," he said.
Mrs. Profitt said she’s also working on keeping the ball away from the middle of the table and being patient so she can take the right shot. One goal is to make her coach fall out of his chair while reaching for a shot.
"She hasn’t succeeded yet, but she’s come close," he laughed.
Mrs. Profitt is a parishioner at St. Mary Church in Newington, where fellow parishioner Millie O’Toole sees her every week at the vigil Mass.
"There are some handicapped people who would be home moaning and groaning about it, but she’s out there," Mrs. O’Toole said. "She’s not somebody who wears it on her shoulder."
Mrs. O’Toole, wife of Deacon Michael O’Toole, belongs to a group of retired employees of Newington Children’s Hospital, where young Tara underwent therapy after her accident. Some people in the group remember her, and the group raised several hundred dollars recently to help with traveling expenses for Mrs. Profitt in her competitions.
"I think she’s just an exceptional person," Mrs. O’Toole said.
"She’s a fighter," said Mr. Tinyszin. "She’s determined."
"It’s going to be an outstanding opportunity for the both of us," said Mrs. Fontaine by telephone. "When you think about how rare the opportunity is to begin with and then to actually – I mean, we probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than having the two of us qualifying to play together again. This many years later, it’s probably never happened, whether in Paralympic sports or able-bodied sports. I don’t think it’s ever happened."
"In sport, you always have a chance to win," Mrs. Profitt said.
"I feel blessed," she said. "I feel that I was given much more than was taken away from me. You never know how things would have turned out, so you have to live positively."