USA Table Tennis

Sharlene “Sherri” Krizman was one of a number of U.S. Champions that Coach John Varga’s YMCA Club in South Bend, Indiana produced in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. The Mar., 1952 Topics introduces her to us in a season where her brother Dave will be the U.S. Boys’ Under 15 Champion, and her Club partner and friend, Carolee Liechty (following in the footsteps of her brother Ron, the 1951 U.S. Under 18 Junior Champion), will be the U.S. Junior Miss holder.

We begin to read of Sherri because of her play at the Jan., 1952 St. Joe Valley Open, a prestigious tournament on the Midwest circuit, held annually at Varga’s Y. In the Women’s Novice, Sherri, losing two games at deuce, came a feisty 2nd to Cleveland’s Elaine Mitchell who—some Novice—the following month will be Women’s runner-up at the Ohio Closed. In Women’s Doubles, Sherri paired with Carolee, not to win the event, for the Chicagoans Peggy Ichkoff and Mary Specht were too strong, but to impressively beat the #2 seeded team of Chicago’s Irene Webb and Toronto’s Audrey Perkins, the current Canadian National Women’s Champion. Coach Varga, who’d been trying to keep the Game fun for his young charges, making them laugh by playing the clown or “Big Daddy Bear,” had to have been proud to see how seriously his latest prodigy enjoyed competing.

What’s that?…How old is Sherri? She just turned 11 in September.

Next season, because the 1953 World’s was being held in Communist Bucharest, a city that U.S. players weren’t free to travel to, the Women’s East-West Matches would not decide, as they were meant to do, a U.S. Corbillon Cup Team. However, because only two of the four Easterners who qualified showed up at the venue site, the South Bend Y, both Carolee and Sherri were added to the round robin field and so got some great match experience.

At the Jan., 1953 St. Joe Valley Open, though snowstorms iced the South Bend Streets, who should blow in from the Windy City but 1951 U.S. Junior Miss Champion Sharon “Sherry” Koehnke. She came 2nd in the Women’s to Ichkoff and downed Liechty in the Junior Miss. Sharon hadn’t played in the 1952 National’s because, since her father was promoting her to be a “glamour girl,” she’d been invited to play in the English Open, where immediately she made quite a stir not because of her play—though she got to the final of the Junior Miss there—but because of her scanty costumes. She posed “in a brief fish-net, rhinestone-studded creation,” and practiced in a “strapless, form-fitting suit of firehouse red” (showing considerable leg and shoulder) that so many Britons hoped to see her wear for the matches. But she said she packed away such costumes after having gotten only a “kidding” from an English TTA member who “knew I wouldn’t wear such a thing in actual play” (N.Y. World-Telegram and Sun, Mar. 14, 1952). Later in the U.S. she’d appear in one of her skimpy outfits on The Paul Whiteman Show.

At the National’s that followed, Koehnke had to give up her last chance to win another U.S. Open Junior Miss. Turns out “she was called for a U.S.O. Camp Show that started its two-month Tour just three days before the Championship.” Given the woefully few women and girls playing in USTTA tournaments, there wouldn’t be an Under 15 Girls’ event until 1957, but the Association had just changed the Eligibility Rule for Juniors. Heretofore a player “had to be of the proper age on the final day of the tournament.” Now, since the USTTA deems its playing season to begin June 1 and end on May 31, Boys and Girls if not 15 years old as of June 1st can play the whole upcoming season in the 14 and Under division, and, similarly, those who aren’t 18 as of June 1st can play the whole season in the 17 and Under division.

This means that going into the Mar. 27-29, 1953 National’s, Defending Champion Carolee Liechty can still play in 3 more Junior Miss Championships and Sherri Krizman, who won’t be a teenager until Sept., 1953, can play in 6. The more remarkable, then, that when in Kansas City Sherri beats Carolee for this season’s U.S. Open Junior Miss 17 and Under title she’s only 12 and, with 5 more chances to win again, is already the Champion.

Of course Varga’s kids always played a lot—“sometimes almost every night,” said Sherri reminiscing years later. “Except,” she added, “I always had to get homework done before I could play. If I got even one C, my folks grounded me and I couldn’t play for 9 weeks. Yeah, it happened once or twice.”

Sherri said that, “Anyone at John’s Y who, as a beginner, started with a hammer grip and wanted to revert to it in trying to hit a backhand in, was soon cured of that. John put a nail through the paddle; if your thumb came down it’d be punctured.” Yessir, you had to stay on your toes with John. “Otherwise,” said Sherri, “you’d step down on thumb tacks in your shoe.”

We both “feared and revered John,” said one of his earliest protégés, Gordon Barclay, recalling those mid-to-late 40’s years when he was perennially either a U.S. Open winner (14 and Under) or runner-up (17 and Under). “As a disciplinarian, he could be as hard as nails.” Gordy felt there was really “very little love between John and his students, but a lot of respect.”

Though John insisted on having things his way, said Sherri, he did have his students’ best interests at heart, and their parents, realizing this, supported him. They’d take turns driving the children to play, would help with the supervision. John would buy kids train tickets to tournaments. “If he had two dimes in his pocket he’d give you both.” He wanted his kids to think—would teach them chess. “He wanted you to be a smart player—wanted you to know your strong points, your weak points. He wanted you to know what you were going to do before you did it.” He worked at making his students Champions.

Another man intent on furthering Junior play, George Koehnke (Sharon’s father), on Apr. 25-26, 1953 at Chicago’s Net and Paddle Club, Chaired his annual All-American Junior Championships and also the Junior Intercities (won by South Bend Boys’ and Girls’ teams). Despite the usual All-America hype about how, say, Rec Centers in Culver City, CA or Montgomery, AL were getting hundreds of kids interested, organizers of such pockets of play invariably never sent a single player to Chicago. U.S. Junior International Squads, both Boys and Girls, were formed this weekend, supposedly with an eye towards “future competition” against European Squads. “Future” meaning “Nothing imminent.”

Milwaukee’s Carl Dentice, 1952 National Junior Champion, was named the tournament’s “King”; Liechty (receiving a “jeweled compact by Elgin American”) the “Queen.” First among the Boys was Sherri’s brother Dave; first among the Girls was Carolee (Sherri was 3rd behind not a circuit but a local player Marlene Mall). George Koehnke’s younger daughter Jackie, whom he’s also pushing for stardom (especially since college-bound Sharon already had had enough t.t.), won a division for younger, inexperienced players.

At the Sept., 1953 Canadian National Exhibition (CNE) tournament in Toronto, Dave Krizman won the Junior’s (over Howie Grossman and Bobby Gusikoff in the final), and Sherri Krizman won the Junior Miss (over Liechty), 18 in the 5th. In the Women’s, Sherri, just turned 13, gave Leah Neuberger an anxious moment or two, for she had the current and 5-time U.S. National Champion down 1-0 and at deuce in the 2nd.

Since Neuberger was a lock to make the 1954 World Team, she didn’t come to St. Louis for the Women’s East-West Matches. Millie Shahian was 7-0 undefeated and won the Outstanding Player Award. Pauline Robinson was 6-1—and would therefore with Leah and Millie make up the U.S.’s Corbillon Cup Team. Sally Green Prouty, 1940-44 U.S. Women’s Champion, was 5-2. Sherri 4-3. Liechty 3-4.

The Jan. 2-3, 1954 St. Joe saw Sherri’s brother Dave upset former U.S. Champion Billy Holzrichter, and Carolee Liechty shock U.S. #1 World Team Qualifier Shahian, eliminating her in 4 to reach the final. There, however, she met “her bitterest rival—best friend—and doubles partner, in a slam bang match”—with Sherri winning…as she’d repeatedly done before, in 5. This, going the limit with each other in match after match, was itself a game these girls played?

Women’s winner (Junior Girls too) at the Michigan Open was Carolee—over…Cleveland’s Elaine Mitchell. No, Sherri didn’t enter. Maybe she had an accordion concert? Or, oh-oh, had been grounded?

At the U.S. Open, in the best of the 8th’s matches, Milwaukee’s Marion Mueller was 1-1 and 23-all in the 3rd before losing to Liechty; while Virginia Bromley Angus, up 2-1, threatened, but only threatened to stop Krizman’s advance. Carolee then lost to Pauline Robinson, and Sherri, after dropping the 1st game 28-26, fell 3-zip to the eventual winner Shahian. Women’s Doubles had a humdinger of an early match when Krizman/Liechty beat the Ohio pair, Mitchell and Mary Landfair 24-22 in the 5th. Can you guess who played in the Junior Miss final? Can you guess how many games the match went? Sharlene Krizman in 5 was still the Champ and Carolee Liechty was again the gritty runner-up.

On Apr. 24-25 South Bend hosted the National Junior Team and All-American Singles Championships. The Juniors named to U.S. Squads this year would at least have some International play in that, at the Sept. CNE, Canada for the first time would field both a Boys’ and a Girls’ Team. South Bend prevailed in that Team competition, and the Girls who’d represent the U.S. in Toronto were Krizman and Liechty, with Chicago’s Jo Brady as Alternate. At the Players’ Party, Sharlene squeezed out of her accordion respect and smiles. 

As expected, at the CNE, in the Junior Miss International Match, Sherri and Carolee blitzed Diane Wisman and Patsy Boniface. In the Women’s Open, Sherri rallied from 2-1 down to defeat Jenny Kapostins (later Marinko), the 1952 and ’53 Canadian Closed Champion, but then in the semi’s, after initially contesting with Pauline Robinson, she just went limp. Nor could Sherri and Carolee offer any resistance in their Doubles final with Singles winner Neuberger and Robinson.

Shahian, Prouty, Liechty, and Ichkoff represented the West in the Women’s Matches at Indianapolis—so this meant Liechty had beaten Krizman in the Tryouts, or that Sherri had been stricken with a C? Carolee finished 5th behind Neuberger, Shahian, Prouty, and Robinson. As it turned out, Millie, who would solidify her place on the U.S. Team with wins over Liechty and Krizman at the upcoming Illinois Open, couldn’t go to the World’s, so had Liechty beaten Robinson at Indianapolis, she, rather than Pauline, would probably have been picked for the trip.

At the Jan. 8-9, 1955 St. Joe, Carolee and Sherri split the Women’s and Junior Miss finals—with Carolee winning the former in 5, Sherri the latter in 4. Sherri also won both Doubles—the Women’s with Carolee, the Mixed with Tim Boggan.

Of course Sherri went to the 1955 Rochester, N.Y. National’s, and, though she fell in straight games to Neuberger, she won the Junior Miss for the third consecutive year. In the Mixed, she and Boggan also played a good 5-game match against the eventual winners Miles/Shahian.

It must be highly unusual in any sport that brother and sister from the same state are State Champions at the same time, but in April Dave Krizman took the Men’s from Louisville’s Benny Helm, and Sherri took the Women’s from Carolee. Later, at the South Bend Summer Open, the often tense-looking Liechty might have allowed herself a small, inward smile on beating Sherri.   

And beat her again she did at the CNE’s Junior Miss. Nothing new with the Women’s there though—for the 8th consecutive time Neuberger’s grip on the trophy was photo-op strong. In advancing to the final, Sherri ousted Jenny Kapostins who’d regained her Closed Championship, then Lona Flam Dolinsky (soon to be Flam again), before losing to Leah in 4. Leah and Lona downed the South Benders in the Doubles final.

At the Oct. Illinois Open, Sherri won the Junior Miss, reached the Mixed final with Boggan only to lose to Schiff/Prouty, and in the Women’s had to watch from the sidelines as Shahian beat Ichkoff in 5.

Shahian, Ichkoff, Krizman, and Prouty would represent the West Team—but, after the final Matches with the East, our 1956 Corbillon Cup Team would be Neuberger, Robinson, and Flam, with Prouty as a Pay-Your-Own-Way addition. Sally didn’t go to Tokyo—couldn’t take the Team flight as an eligible 4th woman because the Army, whom necessarily the Team (in return for exhibitions at military bases) was dependent on for transportation, could only seat 8, including the Team Captain and U.S. Delegate to the ITTF Meeting, Bill Gunn.

Gunn’s choices for the Women’s Team, unlike those of the Selection Committee members, had not included either Neuberger or Shahian. He’d wanted a young team that, were they available, would have included South Bend’s Krizman and Liechty (now enrolled in college at North Manchester, IN). Actually, the Krizman family was quite upset, for they’d missed the deadline for registering Sherri’s availability. Her parents were away on vacation during the short time period Sherri was given to respond—“immediately” was the directive—and no one, including Sherri, was alert to the necessity of a quick response. Although Sherri’s coach, John Varga, said that Sherri’s record was as good as Erwin Klein’s, this just was not so, and there was no way she would have been voted onto the Team. However, I must say that better planning and/or a personal phone-call follow-up could have avoided the ensuing ill-feeling.

Gunn’s assessment was that Leah will be “completely outclassed…cannot even come close to winning [abroad].” So she’ll be an embarrassment to the U.S.? Ironically, Leah and Erwin Klein, in winning the 1956 World Mixed Doubles title, gave the U.S. its only World Championship for almost 50 years now.

Before leaving for Tokyo, Leah again won the U.S. Open, didn’t drop a game. Sherri, who with her flat-hit flicks had an easy win in the Junior Miss (her 4th straight) over Toronto’s Diane Wisman, was named first recipient of the Troy Snyder Memorial Trophy (after 54-year-old Troy, the USTTA Trophy Committee Chair, died unexpectedly of a heart attack in Jan.). In the Women’s, Sherri was eliminated, 3-0, in the quarter’s, by Pauline Robinson who, playing well, would be a finalist in both the Women’s and Mixed Doubles.

Sherri’s mentor, Varga, with health problems but out of the hospital in time to go up to Chicago’s Net and Paddle Club to run the control desk at the 1956 Women’s National Team Championships (these had taken the place of the East-West Matches), was undoubtedly gladdened by both Sherri and Carolee’s play. Though Texan Marjory Willcox’s “masterly handling of sponge” allowed her to bamboozle both of the South Bend women, Sherri’s 14-4 record (characterized by steady, low pushes and an “ungettable smash”) and Carolee’s 13-5 showing might have allowed them, had they a strong 3rd, to win the title. As it was, they came 3rd behind undefeated California and runner-up N.Y., two of whose players had losing records. Both Neuberger (lost to Shahian) and CA’s surprising Vallerie Smith, later Bellini (lost to Neuberger) were 17-1, while Shahian was 16-2.

In the Central Open that followed, Shahian and Krizman furthered their chances of making the 1957 World Team, for in the final Millie barely beat Sherri, 19 in the 5th. Sure enough then, the Selection Committee unanimously picked Neuberger, Shahian, and Krizman for Corbillon Cup play in Stockholm. Gunn, who’d denigrated both Neuberger and Shahian the year before, who’d judged they were too old, couldn’t win, now said, “this may be the strongest team we have sent in many a year.”

At the 1957 St. Joe Open, Carolee, in a climactic semi’s, rallied, 21-19 in the 4th, 23-21 in the 5th to edge arch-rival Sherri, but then hadn’t enough game to challenge Shahian in the final. I don’t know if Liechty played in the Junior Miss, but if she did, Jackie Koehnke beat her—for in the final Jackie, playing her best tournament to date, forced Sherri into the 5th. The hometown pair, however, took the Women’s Doubles from Millie and Jackie; and Krizman/Allan Levy reached the final of the Mixed before falling to Shahian/Marty Prager.

Going to Stockholm, playing in the World’s, seeing the great players of her day, must have been quite exciting for sixteen-year-old Sherri, but in Corbillon Cup play—participating in 7 of the 8 ties (she sat out only against China)—she wasn’t intimidated, contributed her share to the Team’s successes. In the 5 ties that the U.S. won, blanking their opponents, she paired with both Neuberger and Shahian twice, and won singles matches against Switzerland, Holland, and Norway. Against Wales she lost a doubles match with Leah, and against England she lost a respectable –19, -17 match to Jill Rook. So, 7 wins and 2 losses.

In Singles, Neuberger (protesting that her opponent’s serves were illegal) dropped a deuce-in-the-5th heartbreaker to Japan’s Defending Champion Tomi Okawa, and Shahian –19, -20, 4, -22 outscored, but, alas, lost to, Scotland’s Helen Houlistan. Sherri came up short against New Zealand’s #2 Joy Williamson. (However, though she was beaten –13, -7, 22, -10, she did hang in there, win the stay-alive 3rd). Nothing for Sherri or Millie to write home about in any of  their other matches. As for Leah, she got to the semi’s of the Consolation’s before losing to Scotland’s former World Women’s Doubles Champion Helen Elliot.

After the World’s, the U.S. Team was split into two exhibition groups—with Sherri joining the Gunn wing, and along the way enjoying a two-day holiday in the resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen in the Bavarian Alps, site of the 1936 Olympic Games.

No sooner did the Team return home than it was time to play in the National’s. In the Women’s, Sherri got by Michigan’s Phyllis Stern in 5, then lost a spunky 19, -16, -19, -18 quarter’s match to Peggy Ichkoff. Neuberger won her 8th Championship, losing only one game, in the quarter’s, to CA’s 16-year-old Sharon Acton’s “devastating attack from both wings.” Paired with Norby Van de Walle, ’56 U.S. Open Boys’ Champ and this year’s U.S. Open Junior runner-up to Erwin Klein, Sherri reached the semi’s of the Mixed before going down to the eventual winners, Schiff/Neuberger. In the Junior Mixed, Sherri and fellow South Bend stalwart John Kromkowski lost the final to Mike Ralston/Jackie Koehnke, but Kromkowski partnered his South Bend buddy Forest Milbourn to a win in the Junior Doubles.

In the Junior Miss, Sherri won her 5th straight title, downing in the final the formidable Acton, Women’s Doubles winner with Smith over defending Champs Neuberger/Shahian. Sherri’s 5-time feat would seem unmatchable, but not too many years hence, CA’s Patty Martinez will also win 5 Junior Miss titles, though only 4 consecutively. Since I myself played Mixed Doubles with both young women, I’m probably more aware than many of how self-composed they were, how little they moved, and how, hugging the table, they seemed ever ready to slash fearlessly at the ball. Both favored their flat forehands, but Patty liked to block and pick, and Sherri looked also to swat hard backhands in.

Regardless of the time of year, Sherri seasoned her game. At the South Bend Summer Open, held “on the hottest day of the year,” during which Indiana’s Jack Foster succumbed to illness and exhaustion and defaulted both his Singles and Doubles final, Sherri survived 5-game challenges from both Phyllis Stern and Jean Veit to take the Women’s. But the Mixed Doubles title proved elusive—she and Michigan TTA V.P. Don Williams lost the final to Dick Hicks/Connie Warren, 19 in the 3rd.  Since Williams supported the South Bend tourney, it seemed only fair that Krizman go up and win the Summer tournament at Grand Rapids, maybe meet for the first time little Connie Stace, another future Hall of Famer.

During the months before the NTC’s, Sherri beat ’57 U.S. Open finalist Millie Shahian at least twice—at the Michigan and Lake States Opens. But perhaps the Illinois Prez was having some problems connected with the Women’s Matches she was hosting at her Net and Paddle Club. If so, she got reconnected at that tournament with a 19-2 record that included a win over Susie Hoshi, a student permanently or impermanently here from Japan who was about to win our U.S. Open two years in a row. Illinois, however, with a weak third, couldn’t stop New York, particularly when Shahian lost to Neuberger and Koehnke to Marianne Bessinger.

But, surprise, against California, though Shahian lost to Acton, Koehnke did not, and so “showed the most improved game of the year.” CA’s Mary McIlwain had been beaten by Shahian and Koehnke, but came through against Mary Jane Schatke. Similarly, in the 9th match against N.Y., McIlwain again proved to be a winner—over Bessinger. Bravo then to California for a successful defense of their Championship. How’d Sherri do? Her weak Indiana team came 6th, and she was 13-5—with an 18-in-the-3rd “good” loss to Neuberger, and a bad loss to D.C.’s Kay Young.

Undaunted, at the Dec. 14-15 3-star Central Open, Sherri downed Millie in the Women’s final and Koehnke in the Junior Miss final. At the St. Joe, Sherri and Millie went at it, “slugging it out in a toe match” (as if kicking and counter-kicking with the soles of their sneakers?). Sherri won in 5.

The 1958 U.S. Open was held at Asbury Park, N.J., and the Californians sent quite a cross-country contingent. Hoshi, whose name means “Star,” was certainly that. She powered her way through the opposition to win the Women’s title—defeating Girls’ Champ Barbara Chaimson in the 8th’s; former U.S. World Team member Pauline Robinson in the quarter’s; former U.S. and English Open Champion Shahian, 19, 10, 6, in the semi’s; and Acton, 12, 21, 21, in the final after Sharon had knocked out Defending Champ Neuberger in 5 in the semi’s. Covering reporter Jim Sullivan wrote that “Hoshi played a savage game, but she had to be at her best as Acton made many impossible saves that kept the crowd applauding throughout the match.”

In an earlier round, Sherri got by Bethesda, MD’s Virginia Redmond in 5, then-17, -19, 20, -15 tried hard to rally against the Si Wasserman-coached, Phys. Ed-minded honor student Acton in the quarter’s, but had no more success than when Sharon, abruptly turning the match around (-20, -19, 13, 18, 5), brought an end to Sherri’s Junior Miss streak.

Sherri’s loss here was a signal that Adulthood had come upon her, and that she had a life to make for herself away from the Sport that had so occupied her youth. No more traveling for her—but she and Shahian did share Women’s round robin honors at the 1959 St. Joe….Oh, alright, she couldn’t resist—the 1961 U.S. Open was in nearby Detroit, and Sherri, now 20 and soon to be married, lost again to Acton, though this time of course the match wasn’t close, for Sharon, described by one reporter as “the most colorful player in the tournament,” was the Defending Women’s Champion (though, after losing her title here to Neuberger, she, too, was near retirement).

So that’s it—the last we see of Sherri?

Nope. Thirty-three years later…she’s in Vegas at the 1994 Closed and winning the Women’s 50’s over Danuta Andrzejewski. Then returns in ’96 to again take the title from former World Mixed Doubles Champion Tybie Thall Sommer in the semi’s and Tyra Parkins in the final. And, well, so she lost a couple of  “for-old-times’-sake doubles matches with me, and in her last appearance lost the ’97 50-Singles final to Suzanna Sanders. There are still opportunities. South Bend, where she lives, enjoys having a nice club, wants to continue running that legendary St. Joe Valley tournament. And Vegas is still fun for 60-year-olds, right, Sherri?  So, no time now to be retiring.