Ten years of effort led one woman to a brush with Olympic immortality.
What started out as an impulse to find a sport where women can compete evenly with men ended up providing Carol Plato with lifelong lessons on perseverance and turning challenges into strengths.
Competitive sports for Plato, assistant vice president for Martin Health System in Stuart, Fla., started with racquetball in college. But her small stature was inhibiting her ability to win, especially against men. Then she found table tennis, where physical size was much less important.
“I was a ranked racquetball player, but if I played a man who was in my same ranking, he always beat me,” Plato says. “So I wanted a sport where I was a little bit more even.”
When she decided she wanted to become the best she could be at table tennis, Plato hired a coach and started playing in and winning tournaments
“People started calling me an Olympic hopeful,” Plato says. “I didn’t know what that meant, because it wasn’t in the Olympics yet.”
But after Plato had played for 10 years in tournaments across the country, table tennis finally was accepted as an exhibition sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The table tennis association decided during the 1987 Pan-American Games that the event would serve as the tryouts for membership in the American squad.
Plato competed furiously in those games and saw her ranking rise to fifth among U.S. women players. She participated in one of the first competitive table tennis matches ever aired by ESPN. But only the highest-ranked woman in those games ultimately was selected for the U.S. team.
That moment marked a turning point in Plato’s life, which had revolved around table tennis for a decade, including six hours of training six days each week.
“I had essentially agreed with my employer that I would semi-retire once I reached my goal, which was to be as close to the Olympic Games as I could be,” Plato says.
Her employer, American Medical International (AMI), which later became Tenet Healthcare, also was her corporate sponsor. The company had paid for her travel all over the country to play in tournaments and to train.
“AMI said, ‘Hey we understand this a burden for you. We will help you, if you help us,’” Plato says. “That gave me an opportunity not only to further my table tennis career but also to meet the right people to further my healthcare career. When I retired from the sport, I had all of these connections; they knew me and knew my dedication to my sport, and they therefore knew I would be dedicated to whatever job I was doing.”
It is that dedication that Plato encourages in young athletes and those who are starting careers whom she meets today.
“Set your mind that you want to be good at it and set a goal, and then you work your tail off to get there, whether that’s a sport or a career,” Plato says.
That lesson stemmed from years of sacrifice Plato made to pursue her table tennis goal, with hours of daily training while her friends spent their days skiing in the nearby mountains of Colorado.
“I really had no life in my 20s—nothing but training and tournaments,” Plato says. “I had days when I questioned whether I wanted to continue.”
That doubt was compounded when she would lose matches against opponents she was confident she could beat. A sports psychologist helped her turn such doubt into a focus on finding ways she could beat that opponent the next time they faced off.
Other valuable lessons included finding ways to turn prematch nervousness into an asset.
“For me, it was taking my nervousness and butterflies and saying, ‘OK, I got these, so let’s make them a positive thing instead of a negative thing, and let’s take adversity and focus on how to fly the butterflies in formation and beat that opponent the next time,’” Plato says.
Those lessons came from dedication to a sport that some mistake for the recreational game of ping-pong.
“It’s sort of like gym basketball versus professional basketball,” Plato says. “There are a lot of good basement players, but they don’t follow the same rules or use the same type of equipment players use in tournaments. Even so, in their own world they are really good.”
Changes she has noticed in the game since her playing days have included a larger focus on winning through serves, during which many current players lose points, instead of after extended rallies in the earlier era.
What’s also changed about the sport is the level of respect it gets from others.
Plato was proud that the latest Olympics included coverage of a 15-year-old up-and-coming player.
“It’s gotten a lot more respect over the years,” Plato says.