This isn’t going to be one of those stories about how amazing it is for someone who’s 93 to be active, athletic, witty or sharp as a tack.
After all, Bill Guilfoil of Fairway, a tennis pro who will go to California this winter to help a professor study the relationship between table tennis and brain health, makes it look like something you’d see every day.
And yes, he’s 93.
And yes, in 2012, he competed in Olympic trials for table tennis, at the age of 89. The U.S. Olympic Committee has never been able to say for sure if he’s the oldest Olympic trials competitor ever, Guilfoil said, but they haven’t been able to find anyone to top him.
Guilfoil was honored last month by the Overland Park Racquet Club, where he is a tennis teacher Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sunday mornings and where he runs the well-attended table tennis program Sunday nights. The racquet club dedicated one of the indoor courts in its newly remodeled facility to Guilfoil, who has been at the club since it opened in 1978.
It’s another honor to add to a long career as one of Kansas City’s most active tennis players and teachers.
Guilfoil took up tennis 80 years ago, at the age of 13. At the time, he was interested in all sports, particularly baseball. But some cousins invited him to play on the courts at the Country Club Plaza. It was love at first volley.
“From then on, I just played against a backboard and started in a new career of tennis,” Guilfoil said.
It didn’t take long for him to get good. By the time he reached high school at Bishop Ward in Kansas City, Kan., he was a good enough player that he was asked to coach and help the school develop tennis as a sport.
He just kept going from there, eventually becoming a fixture at most of the big tennis venues in town. They knew him at the Rockhill Tennis Club and at Brookridge Country Club, the Plaza, St. Mary’s University in Leavenworth and Glenwood Manor in Overland Park — one of the area’s premier hot spots in the tennis heyday of the1960s and ’70s, drawing tennis legends like Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. He was a manager at Glenwood Manor before coming to the Overland Park Racquet Club. He also opened three Guilfoil Sporting Goods stores.
“I was moving all the time,” said Guilfoil of his intense tennis career. At the same time, he’d also developed an interest in table tennis.
He wasn’t known on the tournament circuit until he reached the age of 35, he said. That’s because of a rule that the owner of a sporting goods store couldn’t be considered an amateur to play in amateur tournaments.
“I was out of tennis for years,” because of that rule, he said. But once it was changed he was able to sign up for his first tournament. His first opponent: Future Wimbledon winner Alex Olmedo.
“Olmedo won, but I played him a good match. I’d never played in a tournament before,” Guilfoil said.
The sting of that defeat was perhaps softened a bit by the fact that Guilfoil had beaten Olmedo the night before in a game of table tennis.
Guilfoil was inducted into the Heart of America Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 2001.
Do not assume that Guilfoil is at all tired out by all of that. In addition to his part-time work at Overland Park Racquet Club, he intends to set off for Westwood, Calif.,, this winter at the invitation of a professor who wants to study the possibility that playing table tennis has a positive impact on memory. He gets called upon to speak to groups about living a healthy and long life. He regularly quizzes acquaintanceson their lives as a way of building his own knowledge.
“If I meet you and talk to you for a half hour, I’m going to be much more intelligent. I think it’s a kind of brain trust,” he explained.
The gift of gab is something Guilfoil’s friends know him for. Jake Hannas, tennis pro and assistant manager at Overland Park Racquet Club, has worked with Guilfoil for 30 years. “Bill is always busy but yet he’s always got time to talk to people,” Hannas said. “Bill is definitely a people person. He’s interested in you, not just as a player, but as a person, too.”
As to Guilfoil’s physical stamina: “I always challenge people to find somebody his age who could outrun him in a foot race.”
About that longevity. Guilfoil has been on a learning quest of sorts about healthy eating and whole foods, traditional medicines from the Far East and India and about keeping a healthy brain. He encourages people to be active — mentally and physically — and pay attention to what they’re eating.
Even after all that tennis and the normal wear and tear of 93 years, Guilfoil doesn’t suffer from joint stiffness and arthritis, a fact that he demonstrates by standing and swiveling in place.
“Exercise and movement are important, and being in motion, not sitting in a chair,” he said. “Sixty percent of the time, if you’re sitting a lot, you’re going to be having some problems.”
“It’s hard to say how long you’re going to live. I think I’m going to be here a while — I hope,” he said. “While I’m here I want to be doing something to contribute to society.”