Jackie Williams is one of the world’s top and most experienced international Blue Badge umpires – and she has to thank her son Geraint for what was an unplanned and unexpected introduction to a sport that has ultimately changed her life for the good.
Six months after starting to play table tennis, Geraint was representing Wales in junior tournaments – and Jackie was only too happy to drive her son from their home just outside Wrexham to special pre-tournament Table Tennis Wales national training camps in Cardiff.
Geraint played for six years, but stopped to concentrate on his education – and after receiving 10 x A Star GCSEs, 10 x A Star A levels and a First Class Honours Degree from Oxford University, the sport can both forgive him and thank him for passing on his passion for table tennis to his mother.
Admittedly, Jackie did used to play a little table tennis when she worked in the police force, but only for fun. Never did she think that one day she’d be involved, let alone umpiring at an Olympic Games!
But it wasn’t in Jackie’s nature to simply sit on the side lines and wait for her son to finish training – she had to get involved.
Mentored by Roy Evans, Jackie became a County Umpire in September 1995 and just over two years later she became Wales’ first female National Umpire in February 1998. Then in May 2000, she became an International Umpire.
When the elite Blue Badge umpire level was created, Jackie passed that with flying colours in 2007 – and today she remains the only female Blue Badge umpire in the UK.
Jackie’s international umpiring career began before that, however, when she was the only female International Umpire, out of 47 umpires, at the Commonwealth Championships in Delhi in 2001.
It was straight in at the deep end, not least because when she landed at four o’clock in the morning, there was nobody to meet her at the airport. The tournament ended with Jackie not receiving her closing ceremony jacket, as it had been presumed that Jackie must be Mr Jack Williams, and as no male umpire with name could be found, it had been returned! But between arriving and leaving, the tournament itself was amazing – with Jackie making so many friends and experiencing the great camaraderie between umpires convinced her that this is what she wanted to do a lot more of.
And table tennis has certainly taken Jackie all around the world.
She’s umpired at three World Junior Championships (Cairo in 2006, Palo Alto, USA in 2007 and Madrid in 2008), four World Individual Championships (Zagreb in 2007, Yokohama in 2009, Rotterdam in 2011 and Paris in 2013), four World Teams’ Championships (Guangzhou in 2008, Moscow in 2010, Dortmund in 2012 and Kuala Lumpur in 2016) – plus the Commonwealth Championships in Delhi in 2001 and Glasgow in 2009, the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast in Australia in 2018, at the London Paralympic Games in 2012 and at the Special Olympics World Summer Games in Abu Dhabi in 2019. Add in the numerous trips to the Luxemburg Open, Danish Open, German Open, the European Championships in Budapest in 2016 and the Spanish Pro Tour in 2011, and you begin to understand why Jackie’s passport has such a well travelled feel to it.
And in the true spirit of volunteering, Jackie has paid for much of her travel, including flights, to all bar the very top international tournaments, herself. But the places she has been and the friends she has made have all been priceless, and table tennis friends from as far afield as Uganda, Canada and New Zealand have come and stayed with Jackie in Wales.
“I have spoken to so many mothers over the years who, like I used to, sit on the side lines patiently waiting for their child to finish training – and I say to them, why don’t you volunteer and get involved with table tennis? Become an umpire like I did. I’ve travelled all over the world and made so many friends, it’s been life changing,” says Jackie.
“I’ve been umpiring now for twenty-five years and thanks to inspirational people like Peter Higgins [Table Tennis Wales International Umpire] there are a lot more umpires now in Wales. But we need a lot more. I’ve been to a Junior British League tournament that had forty-seven tables with matches being played on them – and that requires forty-seven umpires! So there are a lot of opportunities, and it’s a great way for people of all ages to meet, because there is a great camaraderie between the umpires. I’ve made some great friends all over the world, and that’s been the biggest gain for me personally.”
There are many highlights in Jackie’s back catalogue, but one has to be umpiring the final of the 2008 World Teams’ Championships.
“The host nation China was playing Singapore in this huge arena in Guangzhou,” recalls Jackie. “The venue was absolutely full to capacity with 10,000 spectators, but it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The atmosphere was electric and I’ll never forget it.”
Having umpired at the very highest level, Jackie has a reputation for strictly enforcing the rules. She’s even had a run in with table tennis heavyweight Desmond Douglas MBE, after the rules meaning that the ball has to be seen during a serve was introduced – the 11 time English table tennis champion’s left-handed serve out of thin air not cutting the mustard with Jackie!
Looking after elderly parents means that Jackie now has to cut back on her long haul travels and she won’t go for the new Gold Badge umpiring standard. She will instead continue to umpire across Europe and the UK and will, undoubtedly, continue to meet mothers sitting in the viewing galleries and politely sow another volunteering seed.
Now into her fourth decade as an umpire, Jackie continues to give so much to table tennis – both as an umpire and as a mentor to other umpires. The sport owes her an enormous debt of gratitude.