How Kim Gilbert plans to paddle her way back into table tennis’ Olympic-sized pool of talent again

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Staff photo by David Crane

Along with a little bravado, Kim Gilbert has a lot of history on her side.

Now it’s just a matter of how far that, and the 47-year-old’s reputation as once being one of the country’s top competitors in table tennis, will take her this time at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials.

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There’s a story she has clipped from the Daily News dated July 23, 1986, along with a photo of her looking intense as she’s winding up to slam a return. Gilbert was routinely whipping male competitors at the then-Hollywood Table Tennis Center in the middle of a career that had already taken her to victories in U.S. Open and Olympic Festival tournaments.

Her resume from 1981 on had included junior, state and national level championships.

ESPN did a piece on her to record her reflexes and she broke the Olympic Festival record with a .14 of a second reaction time. By comparison, in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps fastest reaction time off the blocks was .64 of a second.

She could have made a North American team that would be part of the 1988 Summer Olympics, but because of limited female spots did not make the final cut.

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Gilbert regrouped for the 1992 Olympic team, which would be made up of U.S.-only players this time. But just before the trials, the heel of a shoe she was wearing broke. She slipped on a curb in Santa Monica, braced herself with her right arm on the concrete and shattered the forearm into 15 pieces.

“I was devastated,” she said.

After four years of surgeries to rebuild it and another two years before she was brave enough to try playing again; Gilbert realized it was too painful and just wasn’t going to happen. She had to quit a game that she took up at age 14 while at Palisades High, and included intense training for two years in France and England during that time.

“I had to reinvent myself,” she admitted.

That meant the next 18 years of working in marketing, producing benefit concerts, and starting up a file management business.

Recently, while working for Dial800, a Los Angeles based marketing optimization firm, she took up the game again after turning down a complimentary offer to join a local gym.

“I was shocked — it felt as if I left the game for just a couple of minutes,” Gilbert said. “You’d have never known I hadn’t played in so long. Complete muscle memory.”

She then began training and eventually coaching at the Gilbert Table Tennis Center in Los Angeles. The muscles in her arm that had atrophied became stronger just from playing.

She soon hooked up with actress Susan Sarandon, who started a SPiN Hollywood nightclub inside the Mondrian Hotel that included the desire for table tennis experts to put on exhibitions and avail challenges to their patrons.

Gilbert was added to the weekly line-up of pros, taking on high-end clients who wanted to learn the sport. There is trend afoot through SPiN whereby ping-pong is being used in business as a way of breaking the ice between executives because on the “court” everyone is made equal by virtue of their competitive spirit and enthusiasm for the game.

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As her skills improved, she grew confidence and secured corporate sponsorship with Dial800 and Hama Sushi of Venice to compete in the 2010 and 2011 U.S Open championships again – and was a semifinalist in the over-40 divisions.

Her performance against some of the top-ranked players in the country was good enough for her. Even better was the support of her employer Dial800 who has built a culture that believes in a living and working balance and is delighted to support Kim’s efforts with both a flexible scheduling and actual event sponsorship.

Soon enough, Gilbert got an invite to the 2012 Olympic trails, set for Feb. 9-12 in Cary, North Carolina (linked here).

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The current U.S. Table Tennis rankings automatically put the top 10 women into the Trials – that includes Thousand Oaks teenager Ellen Hwang and Arcadia teen Erica Wu. Gilbert has been seeded No. 12, meaning she’ll have to play some extra qualifying matches. All matches will be best of four out of seven games to 11 points.

Let’s be realistic. The odds of Gilbert making the U.S. Olympic table tennis team at age 47 are stacked against her at best.

“But in competition, anything can happen. I know I can give some of these girls a run for their money – and I’ve got nothing to lose” the Los Angeles native admitted the other day. “I’m gunnin’ for them, and they’d better watch out.”

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Staff photo by David Crane

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