When Ernie Byles' doctor suggested he get in touch with his spiritual side to fight a devastating cancer diagnosis, Byles remembered where he once drew inspiration, and now the sports world does, too.
The Rockville resident is more than a champion at Ping-Pong. Ping-Pong is a major thread throughout his life.
Byles says the sport kept him off the streets of Jamaica as a teenager, served as the venue to regain his health and helped him grapple with his father’s recent bout with cancer as well.
Last month, the 52-year-old computer consultant from Rockville won three medals at the National Senior Games in Cleveland. He took the gold in the men’s singles and the mixed doubles competitions; and he won the silver in the men’s doubles, according to the official results.
Serious table tennis began in his native country of Jamaica, through the Ping-Pong diplomacy program of the 1970s—the program depicted in the film “Forrest Gump” that began in 1971 when the American Ping Pong team was invited to China, one of the first hints of improved U.S.-China relations since no American group had been invited to China since the Communist takeover in 1949.
Byles gave up competitive Ping-Pong at age 34 to devote all of his time and energy into being a dad and husband.
Then he was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 48.
"I know that one day I'm going to die, but my objective is to not die from cancer right now because I'm not finished with my family yet," Byles said.
He decided to pick up the paddle.
“It was a renewed focus on the realization that this body, this temple that I have is going to last longer depending on how I treat it,” Byles said.
His renewed focus took him all the way to the National Senior Games medal stand—a moment he was hoping to share with his aging father, who cheered him on as a youngster. But his dad didn’t make it to the games. He was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Byles decided to compete in his dad's honor.
Patch caught up with Byles during a weekday practice with
the Potomac Tennis Club. Here are excerpts from that interview:
Patch: You mentioned that at one point you gave up Ping-Pong to spend more time with your family—was that a hard decision for you?Byles: It really wasn't a hard decision because as you go through the different stages of your life, you have different priorities. I had given my best years to my sport. It was time to focus on the next generation.
But eventually you
came back to Ping-Pong. How did Ping-Pong help you through the cancer?
Byles: After I had cancer, it was a renewed focus on the realization that this body, this temple that I have is going to last longer depending on how I treat it. I remember when I had prostate cancer the doctor said there were options for treatment. I said, "Look, I know that one day I'm going to die, but my objective is to not die from cancer right now because I'm not finished with my family yet."
I still have two young girls. I want to be there when they're in their teens. Whichever option is going to give me the best chance to die of something else—that's the option I want to go with.
Patch: Some people would have heard that as a death sentence.
Byles: I'm a person who likes to know the deal up front. I can work with the deal if I know what it is. … My doctor said if it's spread, I had about a year and a half. He asked me if I were a spiritual person. I said yes. [ He said] well, now would be a good time for to get into contact with your spiritual side.
In the end, they did get the cancer out. I could have been dead at that point, but here's my new lease on life. I had been talking to my kids about how I represented Jamaica in table tennis, travelled to different places … . My dad used to go to tournaments when we were teenagers to cheer us on. He's 79. I thought well—this would be an opportunity for me to have that one last chance to go compete, having my dad there, and demonstrate to my kids that you're never too old to have goals.
Patch: How are you
dealing with your dad's recent bout of cancer?
Byles: The good news is that it was at the early stages of his lung cancer. He went in [to the doctor] because he had headaches. They found he had a tumor. They removed the tumor—it was cancer free—and they checked the lung. It had cancer. The blessing in disguise is because of his brain tumor, they found the lung cancer. Because they found the lung cancer, they were able to cut out the lobe in his lung, and right now they feel like they've gotten it all and he's in recovery.
Patch: Your dad
wasn't able to make it out to the games. Had he had the surgery at that point
or was he recovering?
Byles: As a matter of fact, I had been training for nine months and the week before I was supposed to go to the tournament was when he had surgery. I flew down to spend time with him before his surgery. You can imagine the distraction. My whole motivation was to have him there. In my vision, he would fly up here [from Houston, Texas] and we'd drive to Ohio together—bonding time. None of that came into fruition. You can imagine the ambiguity of my feelings—whether I should go the tournament or go to Houston. I decided after preparing for the tournament for such a long time the best tribute would be to go there [to the tournament].
Patch: Let's go back
to your time in Jamaica. What was it like having a role in the ping-pong
diplomacy of the 1970s?
Byles: You know, it ranks up there with one of the stories I tell my kids. In 1973, we trained at the national arena. The number one female in the country [Jamaica] was Anita Belnavis—one of Bob Marley's queens. So we'd practice on the same team and after practice, Bob Marley would drive up in his BMW—at 13, I though BMW stood for Bob Marley and the Wailers. So he'd drive up in his car that was named after him to pick up Anita. That ranks right up there.
Patch: How did you get introduced to ping-pong in the first place?
Byles: At the
time we lived in Kingston. My mom did a lot of social work. She volunteered at
the YMCA and she did a lot of fundraising. Myself and my three brothers, we
played a lot [of table tennis] there after school. Then when the ping-pong
diplomacy sent the coach to Jamaica, they had a tryout to pick the top 20
players in the country. That's when serious table tennis started. The national
arena was about three miles from school. We would walk to the national arena
every day. Instead of going out and hanging out, we were practicing table
tennis all the time.
But later on when we represented Jamaica, it also gave us the opportunity to get invited to a different level of social status. In a third-world country, one of the ways you get to the next social status is through sports.
People often use sports as a metaphor for overcoming challenges in life. Just hearing your story, it would seem like that would be the case for you. Would you say so?
Absolutely. Especially the amount of time I devoted to table tennis growing up—the lessons about discipline and hard work. There's a saying that I always remember: Once you get out there to compete, everybody has the will to win. Everybody wants to win, right? But what people don't have is the will to prepare. It applies to everything in life.
Patch: Do you think
you'll return to the senior games?
Byles: I had not planned that far ahead, but after coming back my two brothers in Houston now and they're both saying they're going to train. Maybe the three of us will go the next time, in two years. And if my dad is still able, he and my mom will probably be there. We'll see.