I’ve known Karen for more than 50 years, which sounds horrendous! When I first met her she was only 13, she won the girls’ singles at the Belfast Churches’ League Championships in April 1970, the same night as I won the junior men’s event. There the similarity ends – within a year she was Irish ladies’ champion, and later in 1971 made her full international debut, against the visiting Chinese team, of which more later.
It’s hard to believe that she is mother to Dawn and Andy, granny to Cora, and lives contentedly in retirement with her husband of 40 years, English international Jimmy Walker. To me she’s still the little girl from Lisburn I saw all those years ago, until I look in the mirror and realise that we’ve all moved on quite a bit since then!
I caught up with Karen recently by phone (thank you Covid!) and spoke to her at length (4 hours in total!) about her life, career, and observations.
Let’s start with the obvious. Your dad Colin was a respected Irish international, your mum Marie was a league and inter-County player, how did it start for you?
On the dining table with books for a net! I didn’t start playing properly till I was about 12, in 1st Lisburn Presbyterian Church and later in a local Community Centre.
And was it just a fun thing or were you ambitious?
Maybe I was naïve but I thought you just practised, got better, and then you played for Ireland!
Naïve or not, it worked for you. You were winning titles and competing successfully against the best Irish girls almost immediately. Who do you remember from back then as your opposition?
So many Ulster girls! When I started it was just after Joan Fitzsimons and Betty Warwick, Kyra Stewart was the top lady, there was a bunch of good juniors, I had tough struggles against Margaret Dorrian who was coached by Cliff Thompson; other girls included Kyra’s sister Beverley, Barbara Thompson, Bernadette McGroarty, David Addy’s sister Helen, Roisin Toal, Valerie Moore, Pat Hunter, Lynda Oldfield, 3 Belfast girls Marian Morris, Anne Finlay, and Liz Meenan, and later there was Liz Cash, from Dublin Anne Leonard and Deirdre Kilpatrick, and from Limerick Mary Ryan.
Back then there were very few rubbers to choose from, what did you use?
I was comfortable with Mark V, which I used until I went to Germany and had sponsorship.
The options then were primarily Sriver and Friendship, now there are more than 1600 authorised rubbers.
How would you describe your style of play?
I suppose basically I had an attacking game, blocking when I needed to. I tried to be tactically aware and aimed to make it difficult for my opponents to play their game.
You won your first Irish National singles title in 1971, the first of 7 over the next 10 years. That was a big year for you.
I had my first international call-up, a real baptism of fire. It was against the Chinese, who were coming out of the competitive wilderness on a European goodwill tour.
December 1971, I’m not sure there was too much goodwill extended to you! I was there, the National Boxing Stadium Dublin, pretty packed as I recall, capacity about 2000, reminiscent of the Christians against the lions! There was you, Kyra, Langan, Caffrey, Thompson, and the honorary Irishman for the night Chester Barnes. Apart from the match my abiding memory – and maybe it’s an urban myth, is that Jimmy had seen that the Chinese were ‘throwing’ one or two matches every night for good relations, he reckoned as Irish No.1 he might be the lucky recipient, he had money on himself to win, and he did!
I’ve heard that story too, I can’t comment! Anyway I had the dubious privilege of playing Li Li, I think she was ranked about 4 in the world. I was so nervous, I was 15, playing one of the world’s greats, in front of the biggest table tennis crowd I had ever seen. She did her best for me, she tried to set the ball for me to hit, but I could hardly keep the ball on the table.
It wasn’t a disaster as I recall, you got 9 and 12 off her, I’ve looked at her record. 5 world championship medals, including gold in mixed doubles with Liang GeLiang, so she could play a bit!
You came down to earth a bit after that, back to Friends’ School, tournaments, and leagues.
I played in 2 leagues and loved them both for different reasons. The Churches League was great fun socially, I’ll never forget the suppers!
Just want to throw in that you and I won the mixed in their Championships in 1972. It wasn’t my greatest achievement, you could probably have won it with any one of a dozen players! We beat Derek Weir and Mary Garvey in the final. I’ve still got my tiny trophy, do you have yours?
I thought it was for sharing and you were meant to give it to me after 6 months! Are you sure I played with you?
Moving swiftly on…… You played in and enjoyed the Belfast and District League.
I was the only woman playing in the Senior League regularly, and it was great to play against top male opposition with different styles every week. I’m sure that helped my game enormously and I loved it.
In your last season before you left Ireland you played with Jimmy Hamill, Ivon O’Rorke, and Ronnie Grimason. My recollection is that you lost 2 matches in the first half but avenged both defeats in the second. Some performance against that standard of opposition.
I’ve never been good at remembering my results but I’ll believe you!
And then, leaving school, job? University?
Not exactly. I had a place at Queen’s to study languages, I deferred it (never took it up!), went to England, got a part-time job, but mainly I was practising and playing table tennis for the next year. Dad was ok with it, mum thought I should get a real job!
Another significant event happened when I was paired in mixed doubles with Jimmy Walker.The partnership worked so well that it continued both on and off the table. And 45 years later from that chance pairing, never a cross word.
I confess that I considerably changed your description of what happened to make it sound more romantic, but that’s what you meant, isn’t it?
So, after England, Germany – how did that come about?
I had an approach to go and play in Germany and I thought why not? I had always been keen on languages so that got mum on my side as it would help my German, so off I went.
I’m pretty sure I was the first player from UK or Ireland to take that step, Desmond Douglas went the following year, and numerous Irish players have gone subsequently, for short or long periods. I like to think that I may have helped to pave the way and show what was possible.
I also enjoyed my 3 years there, I played 2 seasons for Kronshagen near Kiel and we won the league during my time. Having Jill Parker on our team was a massive asset – she flew in to play matches! I had wins over most of the best German players, probably my best results were against Ursula Hirschmuller who I managed to beat several times.
In 1978 I qualified for the end of year round-robin event in Germany, restricted to the top 12 qualifiers from all over Germany. Ursula won it, I played well all weekend and finished fourth.
Ursula was 5 times German champion, so no slouch!
You also represented Ulster, Northern Ireland and Ireland at various Championships, tell me about these.
Especially at the start I enjoyed the Interpros, these were difficult when Leinster had Langan and Caffrey and it was up to the women to try and win matches, but the atmosphere was great.
I played in 3 European youth Championships, 3 European Seniors, 3 Commonwealths, and 3 Worlds.
The Europeans in Duisberg was a particular highlight, was that your best Championships?
I would say so – I was there with Anne and Deirdre, we finished 14th out of 25 teams.
That was a significant improvement on 1976 when the ladies’ team had finished 21st. I know you won 13 of 15 singles, you and Anne won 6 of 8 doubles, and in the individuals you played with a German girl and reached the quarters.
You’re good with the details, I just remember having a really good tournament. (Remember this was over 40 years ago!)
On to 1979, a massive year for you in many respects. Commonwealth Chanpionships in Edinburgh, World Championships in North Korea, dropped by Ireland in favour of Anne, and a date to walk down the aisle. Let’s start with the Commonwealths.
I have to admit it’s a bit of a blur for me.
Come on, you and Liz Cash (Cheevers) bronze medallists in the doubles, Northern Ireland ladies 5th in the team event, just one game away from a team medal. You and Liz, backed up by Pat and Valerie. How could it be a blur?
Confession, I have more recollection of Jimmy playing in the men’s singles final. Nail biting stuff!
He lost! Though he did win the mixed, must have had a good partner (Linda Howard).
He will appreciate you saying that! Of course it was terrific to be the first NI table tennis players to win a medal and I was delighted. I fought hard in the singles, losing 3-1 to Carole Knight in the quarter final after winning the first but I didn’t often beat her and she was too good on the day.
And almost immediately off to Pyongyang, North Korea, for the Worlds. No men’s team, just you, Anne, and NPC Joe Veselsky.
That was a gas, talk about into the unknown. Totally different culture. Spectators were bussed in to provide crowds, they knew nothing about table tennis. This became clear one day when the electronic scoreboards malfunctioned and they didn’t know when to applaud! My best memory from this championship was when Anne and I played a North Korean pair in the ladies’ doubles – we beat them in 5 tough games (to 21 points back then!), and this took us through to the last 16. We felt like we had beaten the whole crowd as well as our opponents!
In the team event you won 9 out of 15 singles and 6 of 9 doubles, you finished 21st of 47 teams.
KThanks for the stats again. We had fun off the table too – Anne wasn’t sure about the local food, she was a bit fussy about what she would eat, and she nominated me as her official food taster! I had to sample everything before she would let it near her. She was rescued when we found a machine which sold massive bars of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate which she reckoned was safe!
Later in the year you and Jimmy had your wedding, back in Lisburn.
But dropped from the Irish team in favour of Anne. Local journalist Sammy Hamill was none too pleased to put it mildly, he was very outspoken in your favour in Belfast Telegraph.
I had a couple of bad results, Anne was up and coming, though she had never beaten me at that stage. There was a feeling that she was living in Ireland, I was “in exile”, and I wasn’t able to play enough in Ireland to have the support from the selectors that Anne had.
That was really the beginning of the end, in and out of the Irish team, in and out of the Irish rankings, not knowing where you stood, and on one occasion being told by Anne in a phone call that you had been reinstated. I’m not sure Anne was a selector! Colum Slevin didn’t seem to have the same problem a few years later when he lived and played in Germany, only returning to play in Ireland very occasionally. Perhaps the selectors had learned from their mistakes with you, and were better at knowing how to handle Colum.
It’s ironic that I left Ireland to improve my game, I played in European League and various Championships, I was proud to represent my country, but for the last couple of years it seemed like a struggle.
So how did it end for you?
1981, I had a phone call telling me I’d been picked for the Worlds. I wasn’t playing that well at the time, I had lost something of the competitive edge from my game, maybe it would only have been a temporary thing, but I made a decision that this part of my life was over, after about 10 years of representative table tennis.
Any regrets about finishing when you did?
Not many. On reflection, perhaps when I came back to Northern Ireland I might have played on for a while and sometime I wonder why I didn’t.
We haven’t touched on your Irish Open record, it was impressive to say the least.
You’d better fill me in, I’m hopeless with detail.
Ok, 8 wins. 3 ladies’ singles, 2 ladies’ doubles, 1 with Anne, and 3 mixed doubles, 1 with Jimmy Langan and 2 when you carried a certain Jimmy Walker.
LOL! I had no idea it was as many as that.
NBack home around 1981. No more competitions, though Jimmy played a few here for a couple of years, without losing I should add! You still played “for fun” for quite a while, you and I played a bit in the mid-nineties, you and your dad helped with some coaching, particularly with Jana Cairns. Colin tried his best with me too but I was a bit of a lost cause…..
Did you ever think of playing again, even at veteran level, or as it’s now known, Masters?
(without hesitation) Absolutely not. If I had played I would have needed to give it everything I had, as I had done before, and I didn’t have the time or interest to give myself to it.
Were you ever asked by Ulster or Ireland to be officially involved in coaching or captaincy?
I don’t recall being asked, but I wouldn’t have had the time when I came back, with raising a young family and working full-time.
So how do you spend your time now? Retired from financial services, and a golf widow as Jimmy has changed one white ball for another.
I like to keep active. Maybe I’ll take up golf when I’m older! For now I do Pilates, swim, and walk, I’m active in church, and I play tennis with my brother Richard.
He played Senior League at Glenburn with Willy Cherry and me for a while.
He also played twice for the Irish schoolboys’ team. I think he had a lot of potential, which for various reasons he wasn’t able to fulfil.
Your Facebook entries make interesting reading. It’s obvious that, like me, your Christian faith is important to you – has this always been the case?
Yes and no – I made a conscious decision in my teens to become a Christian and be a follower of Jesus, but it wasn’t until I was about 23 that I started to really grow in my faith – it’s a journey that I am still on. My faith is now totally central to my life, and I certainly have no regrets there.
Do you still follow table tennis? Either live or on television? Does the modern game interest you as much as the one that you and I grew up loving?
I think the last time I was at a live event was with my dad at the Bangor Open quite a few years ago. I’ll watch it if it’s on television. I’m not a big fan of the 11 point game, perhaps because I was always a slow starter.
Worldwide which players have you admired and/or met?
Meeting was usually not much more than a nodded hello at big events to be honest, though it was always good to meet up with players from the home countries. I’ve always admired Stellan Bengtsson (N – Swedish World Champion in 1971 at 18), and of course Jan Ove Waldner. Among the women, I loved to watch the Czech Ilona Vostova because of her very individual style. I also have great memories of watching Jill Parker win the Europeans against Maria Alexandru in a thrilling final.
And nearer home, who was the greatest in your time – Tommy Caffrey, Jimmy Langan, or Colum Slevin?
That’s so hard! I would personally rule out Colum but only because he was just coming through as I was stopping and I didn’t see him at his best. But what he achieved has been impressive, playing most of the time in the German Bundesliga.
I played a lot in the European League with Jimmy and Tommy. It was hard but fun. We always thought we had the possibility of at least a 4-3 result if we played well. We had a chance in both doubles, Jimmy and Tommy rarely lost, and Jimmy and I combined well. Jimmy usually beat the opposition No.2, and only left us needing one more from my singles, Tommy’s 2, and Jimmy’s second match. For me, Jimmy was the flair player, he could raise his game, and had some outstanding results.
He beat the highly rated and European ranked Czech star player Jaroslev Stanek twice in a week, I saw the second match in Dublin. And that was not unusual. Tommy was handy too, winner of 2 Irish Opens – and in his mid-70s he’s still a useful veteran.
So we agree, Jimmy gets the vote – that’ll be controversial if anyone reads to the end of this piece! But to be fair we were fortunate to have both of these outstanding players at the same time.
Following on from that, who were the top Ulster men in your time?
I suppose the obvious ones who were good enough to play for Ireland at a time when Jimmy and Tommy ruled the roost. Clifford Thompson was the undisputed No.3 when I came through, and then Alistair Cairns, Derek Weir, Stephen Tracey, and Tom Heasley.
Karen, I’ve really enjoyed this chat, it’s been great catching up. As far as I’m concerned you have definitely been Ireland’s best lady player in my time. I’ve enjoyed watching you play. I’ve enjoyed occasionally partnering you. I didn’t always enjoy playing against you – in that last season before you went to England you beat me 21-5, 21-6, no mercy for friends! And thank you for your time.
Again I’ll have to take your word for that! It’s been fun and very informative – I’ve even learnt things about myself that I didn’t know or had forgotten. Thank you so much Norman.
Norman Nabney July 2020.