By LOIS KINDLE
Kings Point resident Valerie Rolph is an Air Force veteran who loves playing table tennis. But due to nerve damage from a brain injury she sustained while in the service, the former military police officer plays her sport from a wheelchair.
Rolph is a USA National Para Table Tennis member who competes across the country and internationally to improve her ranking in the sport. She ultimately wants to compete in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris.
Currently ranked 20th in the world in her class, she is one of only five male and female Americans, and the only veteran, invited to compete in the world championships in Grenada, Spain, Nov. 6 to 12. To prepare for these games, she’ll be attending training camp in Charlotte, N. C., at the end of this month.
The 55 year old competed in early October in the Tampa Bay Active Games qualifier, coming in 1st place for women ages 55 to 59.
“I started playing table tennis on the suggestion of my Veterans Administration adaptive sports therapist, who encouraged me to pursue a childhood interest in the sport,” Rolph said. “I was referred to Paralympian Tara Profitt in Apollo Beach. She recognized I could be classified for competition in my level of disability.”
Rolph first became classified nationally and then traveled to Costa Rica in 2018 to be classified internationally.
When she returned home, Rolph experienced a setback. A diagnosis of breast cancer led to a double mastectomy, which kept her from competing in the 2022 Paralympics in Tokyo.
She’s now cancer-free and has become a passionate para table tennis advocate.
“I love the feeling of camaraderie I get and being with people like me,” Rolph said. “I enjoy its competitiveness, the smiling, the laughter. I’ve made friends all over the globe.”
She wants to share all that with other people who have adaptive needs by drawing them into the sport.
“My goal now, my purpose in life is to get more people to play,” she said. “I find it so rewarding.”
Her efforts are paying off.
“Valerie is paving the way as a pioneer for adaptive sports programs benefiting table tennis players who have physical and intellectual disabilities,” said Nadia Zaharna, a friend and fellow competitor who played with her last March in the Pinellas Good Life Games, a qualifier for the Florida Senior Olympics coming up in December. “Through her efforts, she helped start the Sunrise Table Tennis Club Veterans Play program in Clearwater and the Paralympic Sport Tampa Bay table tennis program for Hillsborough County Parks & Recreation. Both programs are guided by Gary Fraiman, USA Para National Team coach.”
“She has a focus and determination to overcome any challenge thrown her way,” Zaharna added. “Her achievements are remarkable. I find her inspiring.”
Rolph currently has no corporate sponsors to help defray her travel expenses to Spain. She hopes to find one locally. If interested in sponsoring her or in playing para table tennis, call her at 305-849-2069.