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One of Welsh sport’s greatest figures as a player, coach and administrator has passed away. Rob Cole pays tribute to the legendary Betty Gray, who began playing table tennis in the 1930s.
They don’t make them like they used to!
All the headlines in Welsh table tennis this year may have been about the 11-year-old wonder kid Anna Hursey, but she could only dream of having a career as long and successful as Betty Gray.
The 98-year-old President of the Welsh Table Tennis Association died this week and her passing has left a gaping hole in the sport she loved, played and served for the majority of her life.
She was good enough to win a team bronze medal for Wales at the World Championships in 1951 and set Hursey a target to beat of her 11 Welsh singles titles.
Her first Welsh win came in 1947 and her record breaking 11th success came 21 years later in 1968 at the age of 48. She also won 14 ladies doubles titles and three mixed double crowns to make it 28 Welsh titles all tolled.
“She was a very strong-willed woman who was the dominant force in Welsh table tennis during her playing career. She had an unorthodox style, but never wanted anyone to try to help her change,” said George Evans, who won the first of his five Welsh singles titles in 1958.
“My wife played with her in the Welsh team and she was a fiery character. She wasn’t always everyone’s cup of tea, but I got on well with her.
“Her commitment to table tennis was incredible and she helped to develop so many players in the Swansea area. With Audrey Bates she proved that Wales could produce really top class players in the fifties.”
Gray joined forces with Bates and Audrey Coombs in winning the bronze medal at the 1951 World Table Tennis Championships in Austria. The Welsh team won six of their eight group matches to finish as runners-up to eventual champions Romania in the women’s team event.
The Romanians beat Austria in the final to carry off the Corbillon Cup, with England and Wales sharing third place. The Welsh team beat Scotland, Czechoslovakia, France, India, Egypt and the Netherlands, but were beaten by Romania and Belgium.
Born in Resolven, but brought up in Morriston, Gray launched her playing while still a teenager in 1939 at the Swansea Young Conservatives’ Club.
“Because of the German bombs it was often difficult to travel home after work, so I spent hours waiting for the all-clear at the Young Conservatives’ Club. Two men who were clerks at the docks got fed up with playing each other there and urged me to play them – very soon I was beating the pants off them,” Betty recalled in an interview a few years ago.
A civil service switchboard and telex operator attached to the US Army on Swansea docks during the war, Betty moved to the Post Office after 1945 and became a star player in their mixed team.
It was the start of a playing career that lasted more than 70 years and saw her play 250 matches for Wales and win almost as many trophies.
“They’re really beautiful, but they’re hell to clean,” she said. She also admitted to not being the most orthodox of players, confessing: “If there was a wrong way to do something, I did it – but right.”
She won the Swansea & District Championship Cup 25 years in a row and in Bratislava in 2005 she was crowned the European Veterans champion in the 85+ age category.
Two years later in Rotterdam, and the age of 87, she won the doubles title with Sweden’s Martha Göransson.
“Betty loved the game and the game loved her back in equal measure. She was a towering figure in the sport in Wales who became President of Table Tennis Wales,” said current National Coach, Ryan Jenkins.
“The amount of work she did for table tennis in Wales was simply incredible. Not only did she ensure that everyone got the chance to play the game, but she also nurtured a number of players who went on to play for their country.
“She had a stern tongue and always told her players exactly what she thought of them and their performances. She was an inspiration.”
Even into her nineties she was ensuring that everything ran smoothly at the community clubs she was involved in community clubs at Penlan Leisure Centre and Cefn Hengoed.
Her outstanding work was recognised with the awarding of an MBE in the 2001 New Year’s Honours List for her services to table tennis in Swansea.
She became President of the Swansea Table Tennis League and of the new Cymru Veterans’ Association and in 2010 she became Swansea’ sports personality of the year.
That year she was also nominated for a lifetime achievement award at the UK Coaching Awards and was honoured with a special tribute at the Welsh Sports Awards.
Two years late, in 2012, she was the oldest torch bearer on the Welsh leg of the Olympic torch journey to London when she carried it on a leg in Swansea.
She was 91 at the time, but that was nothing to a lady who played internationally for three years with an undiagnosed dislocated shoulder and returned to play after breaking her ankle with four pins in her leg.
“I’ve been all round the world, seen some fantastic places, met some wonderful people and been lucky enough to have had great friends,” Betty said six years ago. “Table tennis has been my life.”
Betty Gray Welsh Titles
1947, 48, 50, 52, 54, 55, 57, 58, 60, 61, 68
1950, 51, 52 (with Betty Crews) 1954 (Audrey Bates), 55, 56, 58 (Shirley Jones) 1960 (Greta Dimascio), 61 (Bates), 1971, 72 (Lynda Jones), 73 (Janet Evans), 1982, 83 (Margaret Phillips)
Mixed Doubles (3)
1952, 54 (with Glyn Morgan) 1959 (Alan Morris)
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